LAHORE - Even ‘encounters’ by police have failed to stop child murders in Punjab. The latest rape and murder of seven-year-old Zainab is a case in point.

At least six girls, as young as six-year-old, were raped and murdered in different districts of Punjab during the last seven months. Such killings were reported by police in Kasur, Lahore, Okara and Vehari districts.

Several suspects were shot and killed by police in Kasur, Lahore, and Okara districts as they confessed to the investigators their involvement in the rape and murder of children.

A few months ago, a six-year-old girl identified as Eman went missing when she was playing outside her village home near Renala Khurd in district Okara. The police arrested a man in connection with the abduction.

During interrogation, the suspect identified as Sharif confessed to the police that he killed the child after sexual assault. The police, on his revelation, discovered the body from the nearby fields where the alleged rapist had buried the child,

As the man admitted the killing before the investigators, the police staged a fake encounter and shot dead the alleged child rapist. This police action was “welcomed” by the local population and they showered rose petals on the police officers who took part in the “operation”.

In Vehari district, not long ago, another six-year-old girl went missing on the night of Eid Milad. According to the Vehari district police officer, Umer Saeed Malik, they recovered body of the molested child from Fida Chungi City, Marriage Hall area the next morning.

The daughter of a vegetable seller, Zahra, was playing in the street when she was abducted by unknown men. Reportedly, the police widened the scope of investigation by constituting a three-member investigation team to hunt down the killers.

“Finally, special teams got success due to their efforts day and night.

The alleged murderer of Zahra was her next door neighbour identified as 29-year-old Muhammad Asif, son of Abdul Razzaq. Asif was a labourer by profession.

On the night of 12 Rabi-ul-Awwal, he raped the girl by intoxicating her and left Zahra unconscious on the spot,” the police stated.

According to the Vehari police, the killer buried the girl near a deserted building to conceal his act.

Police said Asif had already criminal history. He was acquitted in a rape case in 2016. During interrogation, he confessed to police his involvement in many immoral activities.

In November, Lahore police shot dead a teenage boy, days after he was arrested for allegedly raping and killing a seven-year-old girl in Sabzazar.

A police official denied the suspect named as Rizwan was killed in a staged shooting. According to him, the suspect was being taken to a house for identification when he tried to snatch a rifle from a police constable.

“The gun went off as the boy tried to overpower the constable. He sustained a bullet in the chest and died instantly,” the official of the Sabzazar investigation police said.

On the other hand, a source close to the police investigators said that the suspect was killed in a fake encounter.

He said that the suspect was shot dead after he confessed to the police his involvement in the rape and murder of seven-year-old Phool.

Extra-judicial killings or fake police encounters are quite common in the Punjab province where police killed more than 240 alleged criminals last year.

In June, City police shot and killed a suspected child rapist in the Harbanspura police precincts.

Police had claimed that the 22-year-old suspect, Omar, who was killed during a raid, was allegedly involved in the rape and murder of a five-year-old girl.

In 2014, the police revealed in its annual report that one female was assaulted sexually every three hours and 40 minutes while one gang-rape incident occurred every 45 hours and 38 minutes in 2013 in the Punjab province.

Of 2,576 rape incidents reported in 2013, victims in 167 cases were children. The five-year-old girl who was found dumped outside Sir Ganga Ram Hospital after being raped in Lahore in September was also among them.

In 2006, the Federal government had added three sections to the Pakistan Penal Code of 1860, which provide for death for rapists as the maximum punishment and an imprisonment not less than 10 years. But there was no let up in child molestation cases despite harsh punishment for criminals.

The recent incidents of child murders have put a question mark on the policy of fake police encounters.

Crime experts state that a detailed investigation must be launched to verify the police claims regarding the killings of alleged rapists in the police encounters.