‘Main suspect’ in Pakistan motorway rape case arrested

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Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistani police have arrested a second suspect in the gang rape of a woman on a major motorway last month, a case that sparked national outrage and has seen the government draw up proposals to have rapists hanged publicly.

“[The suspect] has been arrested,” said government spokesman Shahbaz Gill on Monday night. “[H]e will be punished according to the law.”

The arrest was also confirmed by Inam Ghani, the provincial police chief in Punjab province, home to roughly half of Pakistan’s 207 million people and the site of the crime on a highway outside of the provincial capital, Lahore, on September 9.

The arrest follows a weeks-long manhunt across the province, with police detaining more than a dozen suspects. They eventually narrowed their search down to the two individuals who are now in custody.

The other suspect in the case was arrested by police on September 14 and has already confessed to the crime, according to Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, as well as to the involvement of the suspect who was arrested on Monday.

Violence against women is endemic in Pakistan, which ranks 130 on the UN’s Gender Equality Ranking and 143 on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index.

Data on violence against women is not collected consistently nationwide, but police data released earlier this year showed that there were at least 3,881 cases of rape and 1,359 child sexual abuse cases in Punjab province alone in 2019.

In 2018, a poll of global gender security experts ranked Pakistan as the sixth most dangerous country worldwide for women.

“People are angry because they keep seeing these crimes, and perpetrators keep getting away with it,” said Rimmel Mohydin, the South Asia campaigner for the rights group Amnesty International.

“Convictions rates are abysmal, reporting mechanisms are neither gender-sensitive nor straightforward and impunity reigns supreme.”

A Pakistani man has been charged with being the main suspect in the gang rape of a mother on the side of a motorway, a case which sparked nationwide protests [Arif Ali/AFP] ‘Exemplary punishments’

The rape of the woman on a motorway on September 9, which occurred in the early hours of the morning after her car broke down on the side of the road, sparked countrywide protests.

Rights activists called for greater protection for women and for structural changes to the way that rape cases are handled.

Umar Sheikh, the police chief in Lahore, Punjab’s largest city and capital, appeared to blame the victim following the rape.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan took notice of the assault, telling a private television news channel that he had ordered the law ministry to come up with proposals to amend existing laws to prescribe harsher punishments.

“They [serial rapists] should be given exemplary punishments. In my opinion, they should be hanged at the chowk [intersection],” said Khan. He also called for repeat offenders to be chemically castrated.

Legislators told Al Jazeera the proposals were being debated, with the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party attempting to reach a consensus with the opposition parties.

“The idea of public hanging, that debate is ongoing and there are different opinions on it,” said Faisal Javed, a PTI senator and senior leader. “The spirit is that we need to make an example of them. There could be chemical castration as well.”

Javed said the government’s proposed law would include provisions to protect those who come forward to report rape cases, to increase the country’s low conviction rate in such cases, and to establish a database of sex crime offenders.

Rights groups, however, have urged caution regarding the proposed reforms, saying some of the punishments being discussed would violate Pakistan’s obligations under international human rights treaties.

“The punishments being put forward are not justice,” said Amnesty’s Mohydin. “They are guided by vengeance, not accountability. Public hangings and chemical castrations are quick fixes that serve no purpose other than to distract the people and politicians from the hard work that needs to be done to actually prevent and protect against rape.”

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.

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