Criminal investigations cannot be completed or done successfully without considering the accuracy of crime scene processing. To deal with this major and vital aspect a branch of science known as ‘forensic science’ is being used. The main purpose of forensic science is to cope with the maintenance of 100 per cent precision and authenticity of the evidence. This includes the spot and the identification, its careful analysis, and proper packaging with transport. Collection of various facts and proofs from the crime scene if handled with proper care can be used as forensic evidence in court.
Here, a critical question arises regarding the need for a forensic sciences department or a special crime scene investigator familiar with forensics if there is already an existing local police department. The simplest and most logical argument to this is that a forensic specialist is trained to preserve the evidence to its full accuracy, which the local police are not. On the other hand, the poor handling of crime scene evidence can cause a significant loss in the delivery of justice. And we all know that justice delayed is justice denied. Judiciary all over the world consider forensics as the final and authentic evidence before declaring the verdict. This field also helps in collecting the information that can be used to build better security models in future.
This key pillar of the criminal justice system has been ignored for decades in Pakistan. The cases are handled poorly due to the negligence of forensics for analysis. In the past this field has been underestimated in Pakistan, resulting in wrong convictions or undeclared decisions. This is also one of the many reasons for substandard levels of inquiries and investigations with never-ending cases. The lack of rapid crime-solving technology hangs the criminal judicial system on the brink of chaos ultimately affecting the justice and dignity of victims.
With a science-based forensic analysis, PFSA has wiped out conventional methods of investigation and provides a solid ground for conviction and acquittal.
The events of terrorism since the 2000s demanded a forensic system that could help in tracing perpetrators and delivering justice. The civil and armed authorities have made many efforts to establish forensic laboratories so that criminal cases can be solved quickly. In this regard in 2002, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) approved the National Forensic Science Agency (NFSA) as an independent body that could make its decisions regarding the departments of crime scene investigation and trace chemistry as well as digital forensics, without any external influence. It was an ambitious project that failed to achieve its goals.
Punjab is the only province which has successfully established a world-class forensic science facility. However, it ran into many snags before becoming a reality. The Punjab Forensic Science Act was passed in 2007, but the government of Pervaiz Elahi could not proceed with this project. In 2008, the PML-N won elections in Punjab and Mian Shehbaz Sharif was elected as the chief minister. Considering the law and order situation around the country, then Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif took solid steps to deal with it, and one of his major contributions was transforming PFSA from paper to reality.
In 2009, then CM Shehbaz Sharif contacted a leading forensic science professional Dr Muhammad Ashraf Tahir, who was serving as executive director at Cuyahoga County Regional Forensic Science Laboratories in the US. The Punjab government appointed him as a consultant for the establishment of the Punjab Forensic Science Agency (PFSA). It was an onerous task to develop a state-of-the-art forensic science facility from the ground up in a cash-strapped economy but Mian Shehbaz Sharif made sure that adequate resources were allocated to complete all steps promptly.
CM Shehbaz Sharif made timely decisions that made a dream come true in just two years, whereas normally such projects could take five to seven years even in a developed country. The land acquired for this project is a total of 170,000 square feet located just behind the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) at Thokar Niaz Baig in Lahore. This gigantic project was completed with a cost of Rs3 billion. Finally, in 2011, the agency became operational. At its inauguration Mian Shehbaz Sharif stated, “Forensic Science Agency will be proved as a milestone for provision of speedy justice to people besides curbing crimes and bringing culprits to book.”
In 2011, when PFSA started its operation, the government appointed Dr Tahir as its founding director. Dr Tahir provided leadership and direction to PFSA, overseeing its day-to-day operations and guiding its strategic vision. He was responsible for managing the agency’s resources, including its budget, personnel, and equipment, to ensure the efficient functioning of the agency. He used his professional network to arrange the training of Pakistani forensic professionals in Cuyahoga County in the US. These professionals became experts in their respective fields and trained recruits in Pakistan. PFSA possesses a quality management system to fulfil the criteria of international standards for laboratories ISO 17025:2005 and ASCLD/LAB International (American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board) to gain perfection.
PFSA consists of 14 departments and a mock crime scene training facility. The list of 14 disciplines includes crime scene investigation, death scene investigation, firearms and tool marks, latent fingerprints, polygraph, DNA and serology, trace chemistry, narcotics, toxicology, pathology, computer forensics, audiovisual analysis, questioned documents and forensic photography.
These disciplines need highly qualified personnel to operate. The staff count of PFSA is 1,062, with 457 working as scientists and the remaining 605 working as administrative, technical, or support staff.
Primarily as a Punjab government department, PFSA serves Punjab, the most populous of all provinces but high-profile cases from all over Pakistan are referred here. An estimated number of cases dealt with by PFSA per annum is more than 100,000. There are nine regional offices of PFSA present in each division of Punjab — Lahore, Gujranwala, Rawalpindi, Sargodha, Bahawalpur, Multan, DG Khan, Faisalabad, and Sahiwal — which work 24/7 to provide timely services to clients. These stations are well-equipped with basic and advanced level tools for collecting evidence from the crime scene. These stations also provide basic training for crime scene investigation to the local police and other law enforcement agencies.
The government needs to take further steps to empower PFSA to create a database of DNA samples.
With a science-based forensic analysis, PFSA has wiped out conventional methods of investigation and provides a solid ground for conviction and acquittal. Since its establishment, PFSA has helped solve many crucial cases all over Pakistan. Some of the significant cases where the agency played a critical role in tracing the perpetrators include the Zainab rape-murder case, the Chunian case in which four children were sexually abused and killed, the identification of burnt dead bodies in the oil tanker explosion case of Ahmedpur Sharqia, and the motorway rape case. In many other matters in which the police were clueless, PFSA played a vital role in guiding investigations through DNA evidence, audio-video analysis, latent fingerprints, chemical examination, and other advanced forensic techniques.
The government needs to take further steps to empower PFSA to create a database of DNA samples and keep corpses at PFSA premises for investigation under its supervision. Currently, dead bodies from any crime scene are referred to local government hospitals where forensic parameters are not followed so the chance of evidence loss is always present. Both these areas need legal cover and allocation of funds for equipment, human resources and building of facilities.
The government under Shehbaz Sharif’s leadership implemented the legislation and developed regulations to formally establish the Punjab Forensic Science Agency. After the 2018 elections, PTI took over the province and hesitated to take even a single step to empower this world-class agency.
Shehbaz Sharif’s government can be credited with the vision, planning, and execution of establishing the Punjab Forensic Science Agency, which has since become a crucial component of the criminal justice system in the Punjab province. It has significantly improved the efficiency of criminal investigations and the administration of justice in the region. People never forget their relievers and that is the reason PML-N is the favourite party of the nation.
The writer is a political activist and works in youth development.