When the Murder and Rape of Zainab Shook the Conscience of Pakistan

People have been baying for blood since the eight-year-old's rape and murder was highlighted, but now reactions are more hot-headed and emotional.

Eight-year-old Zainab Ansari went missing while returning from a Quranic studies class. Credit: Imran Khan/Twitter

Lahore: When 24-year-old Imran Ali was arrested as the accused serial killer on the loose, Pakistan reeled in astonishment. They could hardly digest that this regular-looking man had, for two and a half years, been a killer on the loose in Kasur, a small town in Punjab. Police reports show that since 2015, at least eight children were murdered after being raped, while three children survived the horrific ordeal.

It was the very last case – the rape and murder of eight-year-old Zainab – that finally brought media attention to Kasur, mostly because violent protests erupted against police inefficiency. Two protestors were killed in the gunfire.

Clues and investigations 

The public instantly connected the fresh cases of sexual abuse with the porn ring that was broken in 2015. Zainab went missing on January 4, 2018, and her body was found five days later. During the initial course of investigations, some privately-owned CCTV footage was revealed to the media.

In the first chilling clip, the little girl was walking hand in hand with a bearded man wearing a winter hat and a coat. It did not seem that the girl was being forced and she walked hurriedly with the man, making everyone conclude that she knew him. That was the last she was seen.

A couple of footages showed Ali walking around Zainab’s aunt’s house, where she used to go everyday to read the Quran, and from where she had been abducted. On January 13, a few days after Zainab’s body was found, police confirmed that the results of DNA tests indicated the involvement of one culprit in at least eight of the cases.

Protestors chant slogans condemning the rape and murder of six-year-old girl Zainab. Credit: Reuters

The situation was shaping out to be the work of one man, not a gang. On January 13, the police officially announced that the man was a ‘serial killer’ even though details of his modus operandi or his traits were never revealed.

Dates on the police chargesheets reveal that the first two cases happened a year apart – the first in 2015 and the second in 2016 – but slowly, the incidents seemed to be gaining momentum as in 2017, incidents of rape and murder took place around a month apart.

This seems to be the time period where the killer was gaining regular momentum with (emotional) cooling off periods in the middle – a definitive serial killer characteristic. These cooling off periods shrink more as time passes and the serial killer becomes more and more ‘unleashed’. In this case too, the killer assaulted one child who was left in the garbage dump, but ultimately survived. He didn’t wait for a month to abduct Zainab. Some news reports say that even while the police was looking for him, he had tried to abduct yet another girl.

The police who had been befuddled since the beginning of the scenario, reached out for some extra help, and some of the country’s best investigators, from police intelligence and special branches came together to try and work it out.

So when the man was finally caught, the Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif quickly announced a press conference.

“Our collective effort has borne fruit and the murderer has been arrested,” he announced and then went on to name ministers, officials and civilian and military intelligence agencies who he said deserved credit for solving the case in 14 days.

What we know of the killer

Imran Ali shifted to the area where Zainab lived around three years ago, say police sources. He lived with his family – mother, a younger brother and five sisters, while his father had passed away a month and a half ago.

At present, details about Ali’s psychological profile, his past, and other facets are not fully available, but it has been established that he was a member of the Naat Council, and used to recite naats (hymns) at gatherings. However, other reciters distanced themselves from him after he was nabbed, and said that he had always been a ‘bit strange’. They revealed that he never interacted with others personally and always left after getting his due money. Ali himself had confessed to the police that immediately after raping Zainab, he had gone to attend one of these gatherings.

Ali said that he kidnapped Zainab by telling her that her parents were back and she eagerly followed him. In other incidents, he would lure children by typically offering sweets or hair clips.

He said that he would usually take them to a plot which was under construction and rape his victims,  eventually killing them. As for Zainab, he walked with her for over a kilometre, trying to find a place, when he eventually decided upon a rubbish dump in a slightly desolate place. It was there that he raped her.

“She kept asking me ‘where are we going’ and I kept saying ‘we’ve lost our way’,” he said in a video clip. “I tried to go to one area (to rape her) but saw some lights there and people so I turned back.”

He was produced before an anti-terrorism court on Wednesday and was sent into the custody of the counter terrorism department with 14 days remand.

The district police officer’s office revealed that when he was brought in for interrogation, he pretended to have heart problems and began vomiting during the questioning, so they let him go without any tissue samples as they wanted to avoid a death in custody. On January 19, the police, on the basis of intelligence reports, brought him in once again to obtain a tissue sample and then let him go again because of his ‘health condition’.

Chief minister Sharif said in his statement that 1,150 DNA samples were collected and matched with samples taken from Zainab’s body.

Imran’s family wondered why he had suddenly shaved off his beard, but they never imagined he could have been involved in such a heinous crime.

A girl holds a sign as she chants slogans with others to condemn the rape and killing of Zainab Ansari. Credit: Reuters

Knee jerk reaction

The first wave of reactions was directed at the police and its inefficiency. Even when they finally nabbed the accused, the public was relieved, but not impressed. The general mindset was that if the very first case had been taken seriously, and forensics had been used, things would never have gotten this bad.

But the knee-jerk reaction that has been trending, especially because Zainab’s own family has been stressing on it, is that the murderer should be hanged in public. People have been baying for blood since Zainab’s rape and murder was highlighted, but now, reactions are more hot-headed and emotional than before.

It is important to note that there is no law in Pakistan that says that capital punishment in public is allowed. Some people took to social media to say that capital punishment does nothing to deter crime, and brutalises the society if done in public.

Psychiatrist Ali Madeeh Hashmi tweeted:

Incidentally, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which was the first to stop death penalty under the Asif Zardari era, was at the forefront of the campaign.

Recently, PPP’s senator Rehman Malik, also former interior minister of Pakistan, introduced an amendment to the law in the senate sub-committee on interior that he heads, to make possible public executions in cases of violent crime against children. Senator Raza Rabbani also supported this action. The amendment has been passed and moved to the house, where other lawmakers have also been making similar demands.

In his press conference, which received heavy criticism, chief minister Sharif said that he would also have liked to hang the man in public but ‘must follow the law’.

However, a section of society remains adamant that this amendment must be withdrawn, and such a law is no good.

Human Rights lawyer Asma Jahangir tweeted:

Two of those who strongly opposed the amendment were senators Farhatullah Babar and Hasil Bizenjo. Senator Babar has also been advocating for an anti-torture law which has still not seen the light of the day.

Others advocated studying the man, not just academically but also to prevent future crimes.

Columnist Khurram Husain tweeted:

But what shook social media was when the editor of Newsweek Pakistan, Fasih Ahmed, also a board member of Lahore Literature Festival, appeared to defend child abuse.

First, he retweeted a Twitter thread urging for due process for the accused. Ahmed then went on to say: “The sexual abuse of children will always exist. You can never eliminate it. Sometimes it leads to great art. So there’s also that,” Ahmed tweeted. He later deleted the tweet.

“Child sexual abuse has always happened, is happening, and will always continue. Two days of outrage on Twitter and participating in a 10-person vigil may make you feel so noble but that’s all just about you, not those who’ve been victimized,” he continued.

There was a huge backlash on Twitter. American actress Alyssa Milano too condemned him. Finally, columnist Mona Eltehawy alerted Newsweek about what one of their editors was saying, but Fasih, in what seemed to be a cyber meltdown, began getting personal with her as well.

Finally, on Wednesday, he apologised.

Shahbaz Taseer, son of slain governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer, and who had been kidnapped by militants for four years, outraged at anyone who defended Ahmed.

But not many were moved by these explanations. Columnist Umair Javed tweeted:

Xari Jalil is veteran journalist who reports from Karachi and Lahore. Her areas of interest include crime, society and art. She tweets at @xarijalil.