DNA as evidence in rape cases
17 June, 2013
By Dr Shahnaz Khan
How to reconcile religion with science? This question, which seems to be at the heart of the controversy around the Council of Islamic Ideology's (CII's) statement regarding use of DNA test in rape cases, is not unique to Islam. While religion is sacred and close to people's heart, science is emotionally sterile and close to brain. Both are important part of people's lives. So, it is essential to address this question of reconciliation.
It is a sign of a healthy society to have debates on crucial and controversial issues. There is a need for an open and respectful debate based on logic and reasoning. And anyone who says that there is no room for reasoning in the matters of religion needs to be challenged. Here is an attempt to give my perspective on this issue, in Pakistan's context, keeping the door open for dissent and room for other voices.
Let's start by defining some of the key terms. Rape can be defined as an unlawful compelling of a person through physical force or duress to have sexual intercourse. Adultery, on the other hand, is a voluntary and consensual act between a married person and someone other than his or her lawful spouse. So there is a major difference between the two situations. In the case of rape one person is the victim and the other is the perpetrator, while in the case of adultery both will have to be held responsible for the act.
DNA is the chemical genetic blueprint for life. Hundreds of thousands nucleotides are linked together in a long chain in a specific sequence that is unique for every person, except for identical twins. DNA is made up of two such chains forming a double helix. Currently, a technique called DNA fingerprinting can identify a person to a very high probability.
Further, refinements of techniques will allow the forensic serologist to indentify the complete sequence of DNA, thereby identifying one individual to the exclusion of all others. Just recently in the USA, the Supreme Court approved of DNA testing because when a person is arrested in one crime, he or she can also be traced to some other crime through this, which he or she may have committed in the past. So, it is an effective and very useful test. According to the newspaper reports (I could not find the exact wording even on CII's website), there are three components of the Council's statement.
First: "DNA test can be used only as a supporting, but not as primary evidence in cases of rape." I believe that under ideal circumstances, which mean the procedure of collection, transportation and testing of sample was flawless, people handling it are trained properly and lab results are as accurate as possible with current technology, it will be the best way to either convict or exonerate a person of the charges of rape. However, I question the ability of systems or institutions in Pakistan to meet these criteria and thus the validity of DNA test results may be questionable.
Second: "DNA test cannot overrule the requirement of four witnesses for a culprit to be punished." Again, in the context of ground realities of Pakistan where bribery, dishonesty and blackmailing is prevalent in the society, the testimony of any witness is a suspect as far as I am concerned. Will anyone be surprised if I say that it will be very easy to find four people in Pakistan, where people are committing suicides due to poverty and food insecurity, who in return for money will be willing to testify for anything in the court? Thus, can we leave the fate of the victim in the hands of such witnesses?
Third: "Whenever there is a number or the formula is prescribed clearly that law has to be followed - like it is clearly stated that four witnesses are needed to prove rape or adultery."
First of all, this statement puts rape and adultery in the same category of offence, which is inaccurate and injustice by itself. Even in case of adultery, unless it is being committed in public, it will be difficult to find four witnesses. However, in case of rape, who could be the witnesses? Either those who were present and did not do anything to help the woman or those who were partners in cases of gang rape. In the first case, they are accomplices to the crime; whereas, in the second case, they are the criminals. In both cases, they should be punished, rather than given the status of a witness. It should be remembered that there are many other methods, which can be used to prove rape or any other crime for that matter.
One important point: victims of rape are not always women. It is an open secret in Pakistan that little boys are frequently abused in this manner. Choosing to not speak about an evil does not make it go away.
So, how to move forward? Here are some suggestions:
a) In this day and age when the spectrum of knowledge is so vast and overwhelming, and many disciplines overlap, it is unrealistic to expect that one group of specialist in any field of knowledge will know everything. That is why there is a need for people from all disciplines to be included in any discussion, which impacts vital areas of a human society.
b) For any discussion to be fruitful, it has to be all-inclusive and conducted in an environment of not just tolerance but acceptance. Society as a whole has to have the capacity to listen to dissenting voices and laws have to protect freedom of expression.
c) Media has to be fair and free to project all points of view. And lastly, let's not forget that debates, discussions, disagreements and the ability to voice one's point of view without fear are the hallmarks of an enlightened, egalitarian and just society. This current debate may move us in that direction. Any conflict of ideas is an opportunity to re-examine the established dogmas and "truths", and to take corrective measures to bring alignment between tradition or religion and new realities of changing times and science.