Unsolved Kasur cases and DNA databank

Published: April 16, 2019
The writer is a public policy expert and an honorary Fellow of Consortium for Development Policy Research. He tweets @hasaankhawar.

The writer is a public policy expert and an honorary Fellow of Consortium for Development Policy Research. He tweets @hasaankhawar.

It was a day like any other. Fauzia was playing with her friends, somewhere near her house in Saddar, Kasur. She was to go back home in a couple of hours, where her family eagerly awaited her. But on that fateful day of 2017, she never returned. The young girl’s body was eventually found, brutally raped and murdered.

Fauzia was one of many such cases, which never got the attention they deserved.

But in 2018, when Zainab Ansari’s gruesome murder sent a shockwave around the country, the law-enforcement agencies sprung into action. The government woke up to the ghastly reality that there had been at least 12 similar cases in recent past within the same vicinity.

Without any other clue, the only option left to the police was to collect DNA samples from every house in the community and match these 2,000 samples against the DNA found in the victim’s body. Zainab’s heartless murderer turned out to be a neighbour, who was eventually caught, tried and executed.

Imran Ali confessed to a total of eight cases of rape and murder and his DNA also matched with the evidence found in these cases. The parents of those unfortunate children found some comfort that justice had been served. But as soon as the media spotlight turned away, the remaining five unresolved cases were quickly forgotten.

In three of these five cases, including that of Fauzia, the perpetrators’ DNA were found but never matched. It was clear that there were other culprits roaming free in the area. Imran’s execution might have deterred them but not necessarily stopped them for good.

Experts believed that if the DNA search was expanded further, there was a high chance that one or more of these criminals could have been caught. Interestingly, even a partial DNA match can identify that the suspect in question belongs to the family tree of the person being tested. But considering the costs and efforts involved, the government decided to abort the operation.

It is true that trying to identify a criminal through such community DNA searches is extremely expensive and difficult. It’s like finding a needle in the haystack. But this could have been far easier, only if we had a national DNA database.

Forensic DNA databases are built over time by collecting and storing samples from convicts and detainees as well as from crime scenes to identify or eliminate suspects. Research shows that such databases have greatly helped in reducing crime and are gaining popularity and acceptance in many countries. In the US alone, a total of 250,000 dead-end crimes have been solved through the use of DNA database.

These databases however need complementing laws, addressing issues like criteria for DNA testing and data storage, access and use. In the US, anyone who is arrested has to give his DNA sample. This sample goes into the national databank, which with 15 million records is now the world’s largest.

In comparison, the Punjab Forensic Science Agency — the only international standard forensic lab in Pakistan — merely has 15,000 records, mostly collected from crime scenes. Moreover there is no legal framework in Pakistan to create and maintain a national DNA registry. Even the Evidence Act does not give DNA its due weight, no matter how meticulously it had been collected, preserved or tested.

While Pakistan does have the technical skills to create a national forensic DNA database, what it lacks is a robust legal and governance framework. This is one area, where without significant investment, a policy reform can yield substantial returns. If done right, this could not only provide justice to Fauzia and hundreds of other victims like her, but could also solve the dead-end cases and may even absolve many innocent people, who have been wrongly convicted.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 16th, 2019.

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