Friday, September 11, 2009

‘Murders’ of unwanted babies remain undocumented, unpunished

By Faiza Ilyas

The silence in Mowach Goth graveyard, mainly reserved for bodies of abandoned persons, is peculiar. The mystery unfolds as one catches a glimpse of an area with many small graves, without any headstones. The graves are of those unwanted newborns whose right to life was snatched by their own parents.

Every month, there is an addition of 20 to 25 bodies, the majority of which are of girls. These unfortunate souls are rejected not only by their parents, but the state, too. There is no official record of their birth and death, while the police do not register an FIR to conduct post-mortem for determining the actual cause of mortality. This violation of the law notwithstanding, it’s difficult to deny the fact that theirs is the case of cold-blooded murder.

“We appeal to people not to kill their babies and give them to us. We will provide them with food and shelter,” said Bilquis Edhi and Ramzan Chippa on behalf of their volunteer services. On average, about 20 to 25 and 15 to 20 bodies of newborns are recovered by the Edhi and Chippa services respectively every month from Karachi. Those handled by Chippa are buried in the Mewashah graveyard.

When asked if such cases have increased in the city over the years, both replied in the positive.

“I am unable to provide data on this, but I can say with confidence that more bodies of newborns are recovered now than in the past,” Bilquis Edhi observed. She further said that Karachi topped the list of such cases, followed by Islamabad and Lahore.

“We recover about 20 to 25 bodies of mature and five others of immature infants every month. During April this year, Edhi services recovered about 37 bodies. There are no specific areas and the bodies are recovered from all over Karachi, followed by Islamabad and Lahore, from where on average 15 to 10 bodies are discovered per month.”

She also pointed out that besides Edhi, there were also other social welfare organisations working in Lahore with the aim to provide shelter to abandoned children.

The bodies, often disfigured and mauled by stray animals, birds and insects and at times burnt, are recovered usually in plastic bags from garbage dumps, sewers, drains and filthy narrow lanes. “They may have been born through an illegitimate act, but they all have a right to life,” said Mrs Edhi.

Low survival rate

“At times, babies are rescued from the spot, but die later. They have a very low survival rate. The skin has almost turned blue or dark blue with severe infection at many spots. There are some, however, who leave their children in cradles set up at Edhi centres. The babies are later handed over to families interested in adoption only if they fulfil a certain criteria,” she added.

Both Edhi and Chippa, operating 45 and 25 centres respectively, have put cradles at their centres to discourage people from taking the lives of their unwanted babies.

“Two months ago, we recovered a baby girl lying in a narrow lane in North Karachi. The infant remained in the incubator for a week or so but, unfortunately, could not survive,” said Ramzan Chippa, adding that no parent has so far voluntarily given away their unwanted baby to the service.

“It has been some six to eight months since we have got actively involved in the rescue and recovery operation of unwanted babies. Earlier, that was not our main area of work,” he said.

While the Chippa service contacts the nearest local police station to bring the case of the body’s recovery on record, the Edhi service does no such thing. “There is no restriction from the police, though we do keep the record ourselves. Many times, the police hand over such bodies to us for burial,” said Bilquis Edhi.

Legal aspect

Talking about the legal position on such cases, Javed Iqbal Barki, a senior advocate of the Sindh High Court and human rights activist said: “There is no ambiguity in the law about such cases. If an abandoned body is found, the state is responsible to get an FIR registered and the police are bound to conduct investigations and post-mortem to ascertain the actual cause of death. But, the inefficient role of the police is evident to all and sundry, especially in cases where the FIR is registered against unknown persons and there are no chances of making money.”

He further said the advancement in forensic technology had made the police’s job easier through DNA testing and other techniques. “Finding parents of unwanted babies is no more a difficult task and the police can easily trace the culprits,” he said, while suggesting that the national identity card should also contain details of the blood group.

When asked whether newborns’ bodies are brought to hospitals for post-mortem, Dr Zulfiqar Siyyal, additional police surgeon at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre (JPMC), said: “Under the law, a post-mortem should be conducted so we can ascertain the actual cause of death. But this is not done mainly because such cases are not brought to the hospital. Generally, in such cases newborns are murdered and thrown away. The police are not interested since the crime has been committed by unknown persons, hence there is no FIR registration, nor post-mortem.” According to the JPMC record, no autopsy of any newborn has been conducted during the past eight months at the hospital.

Police’s version

When Capital City Police Officer Wasim Ahmed was contacted for his comments on the story, he said the law enforcers move in line with the defined regulations every time they find bodies of infants in any part of the city.

“We properly lodge an FIR of murder under Section 302 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) on tracing bodies of infants,” he said. “There are several cases in which the police have found babies alive, left abandoned in different places and in such a situation a case under Section 329 of the PPC is lodged, which relates to concealment of birth by secret disposal of dead body.”

Section 329 states: “Whoever, by secretly burying or otherwise disposing of the dead body of a child whether the child dies before or after or during birth, intentionally conceals or endeavours to conceal the birth of such child, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.” The police chief said that autopsy of the dead bodies of infants was considered mandatory, but argued that in most cases such practice was not followed by the medical staff of the respective hospitals on logical grounds. “In these kinds of cases (death of infants), the opinions of doctors without undertaking autopsies are considered valid,” said Mr Ahmed. “They (doctors) can reach the cause of death through brief examination of the infant’s body and such findings are respected as valid. The law provides doctors room to issue a certificate on their observation without an autopsy.” (Dawn)

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