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Crime and forensics

Zainab and Asma’s rape and murder investigations highlight the importance of forensic science in the context of crime investigation and the criminal justice system in Pakistan

Crime and forensics

Right next to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) office at Thokar Niaz Beg, Lahore, there is a service lane that leads to a well-guarded and well-constructed building. There are multiple layers of security leading to the building. The visitors have to go through repeated rigorous checks and questioning by the security personnel deployed there.

At one of the checkposts, there is a small queue of police officials carrying different samples including those of liquor, narcotics, gunpowder etc and firearms/gunpowder in plastic bags. They have come from different parts of the city and the province to submit these for examination at the forensic labs set up in this building that houses the Punjab Forensic Science Agency (PFSA).

Hardly 50 metres from here, right opposite the main entrance to the building, some men and women sit on benches under a shed with policemen keeping a vigilant watch on them. A few of them are in chains, owing perhaps to the seriousness of the crimes they are accused of. They are here for their DNA or polygraph tests, fingerprint analyses etc. The police officials accompanying them are investigating their cases and waiting for their turn to enter the premises.

Babar Ali, who works with the Research and Police Reforms Unit, Punjab Police, suggests, “there should be a DNA databank of habitual criminals and suspected members of terrorist groups and their relatives so that samples collected from a site can be matched easily.

The entry to the building is restricted. The movement inside the building is strictly monitored. Even the staff of the agency is allowed once the biometric matching is done.

There is almost pindrop silence in the corridors while the technicians can be seen working on samples through the glass windows of different labs. The silence might be shattered anytime by sound of a pistol or gun shot fired from a distance. This only happens if tests on firearms are being carried out in the area earmarked for this in the basement, one is told.

The PFSA employs 349 scientists and 370 support staff and this number is likely to increase shortly with new inductions. The number of cases it deals with every year is about a hundred thousand at the moment but is projected to rise sharply.

Last month a major breakthrough was achieved during the investigation of minor Zainab’s rape case when Imran Ali was identified as the main accused after an extensive search of DNA testing. More than 1,150 suspects were tested for this purpose. The test also helped establish the fact that the same person was involved in several similar cases in the area and had successfully dodged the police for such a long time.

There was praise from all sides for the team that conducted these tests and found the culprit. There was also great acknowledgment for the use of modern sciences and technology in solving crimes and securing scientific evidence against culprits that cannot be refuted.

This particular field of knowledge is described as forensic science which is being used globally to fight crime. Over the last few years, the dependence on forensic science has increased in Pakistan as well, especially now that there is a laboratory claimed to be the second largest in the world. Called Punjab Forensic Lab, this facility established in Lahore has 14 departments where tests related to DNA, serology, crime and death scene investigations, fire arms/toolmarks identification, postmortem toxicology, questioned documents, audio visuals, cybercrime investigations and computer forensic are carried out. The lab also provides assistance to other provinces in selected cases.

Though there were labs and offices of chemical examiners and medico-legal officers in different parts of the country, the major shift came after the events of 9/11 in 2001 when the world saw challenging times ahead. At that time, Pakistan’s federal government decided to build new forensic labs and upgrade existing ones and worked out a 10-year development plan for this purpose.

Following this decision, the National Forensic Science Agency (NFSA) came into being at the federal level. The Punjab Assembly during Pervaiz Elahi’s government passed The Punjab Forensic Science Agency Act 2007. However, the lab under this act was established in the tenure of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif at the cost of Rs2.5 billion.

Other provinces are trying to catch up fast in offering similar facilities.

But, is the cost involved worth the benefits? How important is forensic science in the context of crime investigation and criminal justice system in Pakistan?

“It is science that makes the silent evidence speak up and is an integral component of criminal investigation systems,” says Dr Muhammad Ashraf Tahir, Director General, Punjab Forensic Science Agency (PFSA), trying to stress that witnesses can lie or backtrack from what they have said but scientific evidence cannot.

Tahir was working at a forensic lab in the US when he was approached by the Punjab government to come to Pakistan and head this agency. He, reportedly, joined on the condition that there would be no political/bureaucratic involvement pertaining to matters of hiring and firing.

“Some of the high profile cases solved by the agency,” he claims, “include identification of two men burnt alive in Lahore’s Youhanabad by a mob, discovery of the fact that Baldia Factory was not an accident, unearthing of terrorism plot and arrest of terrorists by recovering data from a burnt laptop and so on.”

Additional Inspector General of Police, Punjab, Amir Zulfiqar terms forensics the next step to modern policing which helps law enforcement authorities reach conclusions in lesser time and with conviction. “There were times when the accused were subjected to physical interrogation for days and still would not confess to their crime. Now they surrender without delay in the presence of irrefutable circumstantial evidence acquired with the help of forensic science.”

He says, “Forensic science is equally helpful to the investigating authorities and the innocent nominated in false cases because their absence from the crime scene can also be established easily through technology”. He shares that “many murder cases have been solved with the help of forensic scientists who recreated crime scenes to determine which firearms were used, whether those firearms were used in earlier crimes as well or not, what were the direction and the angle from where the shot was fired, which groups or gangs use such weapons and so on”.

There is often a debate that the criminal justice system is still dependent on ocular evidence, confessions and eye witnesses, and not much on circumstantial evidence. A reason cited is that many a time samples from the crime scene are not collected properly and that the related laws have not been revised as per the needs of the day.

Sarmad Ali, a criminal lawyer, says: “Quite often objects like glasses, plates, spoons, knives etc. from a crime scene are not handled properly by the police, destroying the fingerprints”. Besides, he adds, “there is contamination of the crime scene as people including media personnel reach there before the area is cordoned off and forensic evidence is collected. They leave their fingerprints, footmarks and other traces that make things difficult.”

Ali says, “DNA test is accepted as corroborating evidence during rape trials while the testimony of the person who has seen the accused with the victim for the last time is accepted as primary evidence. This is something that makes convictions in rape cases difficult”.

Former Additional IG Police, Punjab, Sarmad Saeed recommends dependence on circumstantial evidence for solution of crimes. “What happens is that police manages the witnesses on its own after finding a person guilty during investigations with the help of circumstantial evidence against him. The culprits get benefit in court when these fake witnesses are exposed during cross questioning in the court. On the other hand, circumstantial evidence cannot be refuted.”

Babar Ali, who works with the Research and Police Reforms Unit, Punjab Police, suggests, “there should be a DNA databank of habitual criminals and suspected members of terrorist groups and their relatives so that samples collected from a site can be matched easily. There are DNA data analysers available in the market that do not cost much and can be used for this purpose”.

Ali says, “DNA test is not required in every other case and is done mostly in cases of rape, gang rape, sodomy and terrorism for confirmation or ruling out of one’s involvement. For example, when a terrorist group claims carrying out a suicide blast through a particular suicide bomber, his DNA sample is taken and matched with those of his relatives. The claim is accepted only after this verification.”

He does not agree that the police is careless about collection and preservation of circumstantial evidence. “Thousands of police officers have been trained by Punjab Forensic Lab in this regard. The police officers are trying their best as this ultimately helps them in solving crimes.” 

Last month a major breakthrough was achieved during the investigation of minor Zainab’s rape case when Imran Ali was identified as the main accused after an extensive search of DNA testing. More than 1,150 suspects were tested for this purpose. The test also helped establish the fact that the same person was involved in several similar cases in the area and had successfully dodged the police for such a long time.

There was praise from all sides for the team that conducted these tests and found the culprit. There was also great acknowledgment for the use of modern sciences and technology in solving crimes and securing scientific evidence against culprits that cannot be refuted.

This particular field of knowledge is described as forensic science which is being used globally to fight crime. Over the last few years, the dependence on forensic science has increased in Pakistan as well, especially now that there is a laboratory claimed to be the second largest in the world. Called Punjab Forensic Lab, this facility established in Lahore has 14 departments where tests related to DNA, serology, crime and death scene investigations, fire arms/toolmarks identification, postmortem toxicology, questioned documents, audio visuals, cybercrime investigations and computer forensic are carried out. The lab also provides assistance to other provinces in selected cases.

A shorter version of this story appeared in the print version on February 11, 2018.

Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

shahzada irfan
The author is a staff reporter and can be reached at shahzada.irfan@gmail.com

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