Pakistan police hunt for gang rape suspects as protests continue

Protests have been held in several Pakistani cities for a second day on Saturday over the handling of an investigation into the gang rape of a mother travelling with her children on a highway, as police said they were launching a manhunt for the suspects.

The woman, who police say is in her early 30s, was driving late on Wednesday night outside the eastern city of Lahore with her two children when her vehicle ran out of fuel.

She phoned the police for help, but before they arrived, two men took her and her children out of the vehicle at gunpoint and raped her at the side of the highway.

Inam Ghani, Inspector General of Punjab province, where the incident took place, told reporters on Saturday night that police had identified the two suspects through DNA tracing.

“I am hopeful very soon we will reach them and arrest them,” he said.

Musarrat Cheema, a spokesperson in the eastern Punjab province, said raids were being conducted to find the culprits.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s office said the protection of women is a first priority and responsibility of the government, adding that “such brutality and bestiality cannot be allowed in any civilised society”.

But protesters are not satisfied, and called for the sacking of the lead police investigator assigned to the case, Omar Sheikh, who has reportedly pointed out what he felt the victim had done wrong.

Sheikh is reported to have said the woman should have taken a different, busier, highway, not travelled at night, and made sure her vehicle had enough fuel.

He also said she appeared to be under the impression Pakistan was as safe for women as France, “her country of residence”. Requests for comment to the French Embassy in Islamabad went unanswered

In Islamabad, several hundred protesters gathered, some waved French flags, and others held signs saying “hang the rapists”.

“It’s very simple, these sort of incidents are not very new the issue is that rather than catching the criminals or catching the perpetrators, we always blame the victims,” said Aleena Alvi.

“I think the laws have also changed around the rape victims, there was a law of women’s protection act, instead of this act, there has now been no protection that has been given to victims.”

Hundreds, mostly women, also gathered in Lahore, Karachi, and the northwestern city of Peshawar. “Shatter the silence, stop the violence,” read one placard in Peshawar.

Global rights watchdogs have pointed out that Pakistan has not done enough to stem violence against women, including ensuring perpetrators are held accountable.

The attack has especially angered women who say public space in the country was already limited.

“And now the police are telling you that you are responsible for your own safety,” said Yamna Rehman at the Islamabad protest, organised by the Women Democratic Front collective.

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