Sex scandal rocks Kashmir

William Sparrow

Underage girls, senior officials enmeshed in steamy prostitution racket.

For an area wracked for decades by terrorism, civil war, invasion and life on the razor's edge between Pakistan and India, the disputed region of Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir ought to have enough trouble. But in recent months the conservative area has been preoccupied by a high-powered sex scandal involving government ministers, business leaders and girls as young as 15 allegedly forced into prostitution and pornography.

Last week a district court judge denied bail applications submitted by 13 accused in the case and the scandal is once again roiling Kashmir as prosecutors work to finalize charges and combat criticism that they had covered up the case. More than 100 witnesses have been examined.

The ruling Congress Party and its opponents in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) are blaming each other for covering up the scandal. The opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has joined Islamic radicals in Kashmir demanding punishment for the officials involved.

Asia Andrabi, who runs a women's group, Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the Community), that has been investigating the sex trade and first uncovered the sex ring, told the website Hard News that her group has identified at least 50 current and former legislators and ministers involved in the scandal. According to Andrabi, about 300 local girls are working as sex workers and she accused the government of promoting and patronizing prostitution in Kashmir.

Two former government ministers are alleged to have organized and participated in the prostitution and pornography ring. Charges filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation in June also included a police Deputy Inspector General who has also been accused of rape by one of the teenaged girls involved.

Indictments have been filed against a number of other senior officials with eight prominent Kahmiris charged with rape, procuring girls for prostitution, intimidation of witnesses and wrongful confinement. If convicted, the accused face seven years to life imprisonment. Others are also being swept up in a scandal that has tongues wagging across the region.

The scandal was kicked off last March when a 15-year-old girl named Yasmeen told authorities she was by forced into the sex trade by Sabeena, a woman with one name who has now been arrested.

The girl and many others were allegedly forced to service government officials, ministers, police and security forces officials, the press reported, citing police documents. Yasmeen has implicated dozens of senior officials, according to Hard News. "I was a student of eighth grade when I first met Sabeena at a party," the girl is quoted as saying in a police report. "She told me she would arrange a job for me. When I went to see her at her house, there was no one there except a government gunman, Merajuddin, who drugged me. I don't know what happened afterwards,"

Yasmeen also told police that she was recorded on a pornographic CD whose appearance in public caused her to drop out of school in shame. Still, it was only after a national newspaper reported the scandal on April 29 that the state government arrested Sabeena and charged her with being the linchpin in the racket. She had been arrested on similar charges in 2004 but was later released without facing trial.

While sex scandals are nothing new in India, this one is taking on more serious political and social overtones. The current contretemps has reached as far as New Delhi, with the Jammu and Kashmir Bar Association charging that the Central Bureau of Investigation, India's premier investigating agency, refused to arrest influential political figures. The case, the Bar Association said, "will expose politicians, bureaucrats, police officials, etc., who have sexually exploited teenage girls of Kashmir in the name of countering insurgency."

In May Justice Hakim Imtiaz Hussain stunned a packed courtroom when he said that police were involved in a coverup. "The police are directly hampering the process of investigation," he said, according to a BBC report.

In the volatile and religiously conservative region, demonstrators again clashed with the police over the scandal last month when an angry mob in Srinagar razed two houses owned by Sabeena. In nearby Chinkral Mohalla, protesters also attacked property owned by the woman with police eventually using tear gas to disperse the mobs.

A strike called at the time by the women's group Dukhtaran-e-Millat caused shops and businesses to close in Srinagar along with educational institutions, banks, and courts, many of which remain shuttered.

Jurisdiction in the case was transferred from Srinagar to Chandigarh last month by the Supreme Court after the Jammu and Kashmir Bar Association refused to defend the accused in the trial saying they did not want to represent people who were accused of exploiting young girls.

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