The scenes from Kasur were heart-rending – but not unfamiliar. The rape-cum-murder of seven-year-old Zainab was horrifying, but this was not the first time that Kasur had been associated with child abuse. Only two years before, a child pornography ring, involving as many as 280 to 300 children being filmed while sex acts were performed on them, had been unveiled. No one was punished, and Kasur was plunged into further horror by a year-long series of rape-cum-murders, which culminated with the disappearance of poor Zainab, and the discovery of her body in a rubbish heap some days later. The discovery did not end the nightmare, for two days later there was another body recovered, in Pattoki, a different town in the same district, of a seven-year-old boy this time.

The event was bigger than the girl. The murder was horrific enough, but they have been known to occur. In this case, the parents were out of the country, ironically to perform Umrah. Then there was the shadow of the previous scandal, where no one had to date been punished. Then there had been previous incidents in Kasur of rape-cum-murder, 12 more cases, or one a month for the last year. The city lost its cool, and the protest turned violent, with protesters attacking that symbol of authority, the DPO Office. The police came into action, and not only force was used, but deadly force, in the shape of firing into the crowd. Two protesters were killed.

It was not just the countrywide nature of the protests which told even the few who were still in denial that this was a nationwide problem. Within a day after Zainab’s body was found, a protest erupted in Karachi, after a school guard was accused of assaulting a five-year-old girl on the premises of a school in the Ibrahim Hyderi neighbourhood. The guard had been taken into custody, and the Sindh Chief Minister had asked for a report after taking notice of the incident. He had imitated his Punjab counterpart, who had also taken notice of the Kasur incident.

That notice-taking does not seem to have worked, for the guilty party has not yet been identified. Going by the leisurely pace of the investigation into the child abuse scandal, where no one has been punished yet, the guilty need not fear an immediate arrest. Further, the change of the head of the Punjab government’s Joint Investigation Team should not worry the criminal too much, because it was not prompted by Zainab’s father’s ire that he had also headed the child abuse JIT, but by the distrust sparked in him by the officer in question being a Qadiani.

The matter was not of a JIT, not just of the police, but of the entire criminal justice system. The parents of the victims of the child abuse scandal were worried that their children would merely be given evidence in court and expose themselves to brutal and even vicious, because desperate, cross-examination. Events have proved them right: the police investigation, even the vaunted JIT one, did not result in anyone being brought to trial. That may well have saved the courts, for clever defence lawyers exploit every possible loophole. The demand for quick justice has been repeated, but it must be remembered that the main reason for the delay in court decisions is the readiness of judges to allow the defence every possible latitude in obtaining delays. There is a certain circularity in this, for the judges know only too well that the defence must not be snowed under by the police’s having ‘improved’ the evidence, obtained an improper confession, or abused the process in any one of a myriad ways. The police has done so because it does not trust the courts. The defendant benefits.

There is suspicion that a serial killer might be at work. At least the initial DNA reports, based on samples collected at a number of crime scenes, indicate as much. In seven other cases, the first from last January, a match has been found, though the remaining five cannot be ruled out, as samples could not be obtained from some crime scenes. It would appear that the killer is someone local, but as one of the suspects in an earlier case noted, the police seemed more interested in obtaining a bribe than in detecting the crime. The traditional method of police investigation, of beating (or rather torturing) the suspect till he confesses, does not work. That is predicated on knowing who the criminal is, which in a murder case is often an old enmity. The confession is often considered the best evidence, and the police often does not focus on accumulating other evidence, which would prove the case in court. Serial killers have no old enmity with the killer, which may originate in a buffalo theft several generations ago.

However, if the police does not appear to advantage in the episode, nor do politicians. Apart from their role as backers of incompetent policemen, they have been castigated for trying to exploit the event for either publicity or political point-scoring. The PAT’s Allama Tahirul Qadri led Zainab’s funeral prayer, Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif turned up to condole in the wee hours of the morning, but until there is an accused, local politicians will not get a look in. At that point, someone will bring obloquy on all the rest by trying to get the accused released. This is not because politicians are naturally vicious, but because they want to oblige the constituent who approaches them. In Dera Ismail Khan, some villagers were arrested for parading a woman naked last year. The local MNA has been accused of trying to intervene in favour of some. The accusers of the MNA belong to the same party, the PTI. It is perhaps an unpleasant coincidence that the PTI recently was joined by former Foreign Minister Sardar Aseff Ahmad Ali.

However, it is perhaps pointless blaming anyone. The Kasur incident probably flowed out of the child abuse scandal which had terrorized the city. Just as manufacturing heroin for export led to the creation of an addict population here, selling kiddie porn abroad may well have created sex addicts here. And as serial killing usually has a sexual component, the progression was perhaps inevitable. That a serial killer is responsible might be elevating it too far. The kiddie porn business is not finished. The country may only be witnessing the filling of an export order by a supplier, rather than the rage of a serial killer.

That the local police failed, is obvious. There is a strong and universal demand for revenge. The danger is that if that desire is slaked, probably by a police encounter, there might be a new twist.

The last serial killer to come to light in Lahore was Javed Iqbal, who probably killed 100 boys back in 1999. He was tried, and given the death sentence, but was found dead in his cell before being executed. There is no guarantee that his execution would have averted the Kasur tragedy, but his not being executed probably ensured it. And again, unless the law is followed strictly, something even more frightful may happen. That example is horrifying for another reason; if Javed Iqbal had not surrendered and confessed, he might well have got way with his crime. There is something wrong with the justice system, and there are no quick fixes.