Acid, a letter and the murder of 100 children

Arguably the worst pedophile and serial killer in Pakistan’s history, Javed Iqbal raped and murdered 100 children aged between 6 and 16 over a five-month period in 1999 in Lahore.

We know this, not because of a police investigation into the missing children, for the police didn’t notice nor care that street children were going missing. We know this because Iqbal confessed. Sending a letter to each of the police and a local newspaper, that detailed how he ended 100 innocent lives.

The grey-haired, fatherly Iqbal would lure homeless children and other vulnerable and neglected young boys to his run-down, three-bedroom apartment. Enticed by the promise of work as house servants, the poverty-stricken boys, usually earning mere cents for a day’s work, were easily swayed. They could not have known what was waiting for them in that apartment, inside a small house with a courtyard, 12-foot ceilings, and vats of acid.

Why would the boys go home with a strange man?

Other than the promise of money, it was not entirely uncommon in the Punjab region for older men to take younger boys as servants and lovers, similar to the traditions of pederasty in ancient Greece. The boys were seen as a “symbol of social status”, according to 1997 survey by Pakistan’s national coalition for child rights.

Modus operandi

Once at his home, Iqbal, along with four accomplices, would drug the boys enough to rape them without any resistance. When they were finished, the diminutive Iqbal would strangle them to death with a thick steel chain. The little boys made no sound at all as they fell from a drug-induced stupor into a slow and agonizing death.  

Death in fact, was a mercy, for Iqbal and his men would cut the bodies into small pieces and dissolve them in vats of hydrofluoric and sulfuric acid. Bones and teeth do not dissolve at the same speed as flesh, so Iqbal would patiently wait until there was nothing left but unidentifiable mush. Along with his teenage accomplices, he would dump the vats into the nearby Ravi River. He’d later confess to police that “it cost me 120 rupees (about $2.40 U.S.) to erase each victim.”

Ravi River

The twice-divorced father of two kept an immaculate diary recording every boy he raped and killed and dissolved in acid. The photographs showed some boys smiling, others anxious, some solemn, and all unaware.

Death scenes discovered

Iqbal sent a letter confessing to the rape and murder of these 100 boys, as well as a 32-page notebook chronicling each one to a local Urdu paper and the police. Before the incompetent police force arrived at his house, the scene of his horrific crimes, the local papers were already there, woefully unprepared for what they would find.

Garbage bags were strewn in the corner of the apartment, filled with what seemed to be an impossible number of shoes, tattered clothes, and trinkets. Bloody handprints on the walls. An iron chain lay ominously on the floor, as though interrupted. A stench pierced through the journalists; two half-open vats of acid held the remains of two boys, still dissolving. The low fizz of acid burning flesh and bone apart.

On top of one of the vats was a note explaining that all of this was left behind purposefully, as evidence, proof that his confession was more than just the ramblings of a deeply disturbed individual. These were the only remains ever found.

Manhunt leads to surrender, “suicide”

The police launched the largest manhunt in Pakistani history at that point, but couldn’t find Iqbal at all, who falsely claimed in his confessional letter that he would drown himself in the Ravi River, the same final resting place of his victims.  After dredging the river for days to no avail, finally the bumbling police considered the possibility that they had been duped.

They eventually caught his four accomplices as they attempted to cash a traveler’s check in Sowaha, four hours north of Lahore. Within days, one of them died in police custody, with the post-mortem suggesting police brutality, although the official line was that the boy “jumped from a window”. This was persuasive enough for Iqbal to surrender, not to police in fear of meeting the same end as his accomplice, but to a newspaper.  

The trial was equally macabre and bizarre, with his accomplices giggling and snickering as they were led into the courtroom, admiring their photographs in newspaper clippings about the case. Oblivious or indifferent to the fact that their own lives were at stake.

His accomplices arrive at court

Despite Iqbal’s extravagant showmanship, once before the court he amazingly claimed innocence, and incredibly stated that this whole thing – the letter, diary and acid vats – were all just an elaborate, twisted play, an attempt at highlighting the risks that these vulnerable children face.

After 102 witnesses, mostly friends and families of the victims, the court found Iqbal and his accomplices guilty for killing the two boys found in the apartment, sentencing the two minors to life imprisonment, with Iqbal and an older accomplice sentenced to death.

In yet another theatrical move, the impassioned judge sentenced the child murders to death by hanging, using the same steel chain that they had used to kill the children with, with their bodies to be cut into 100 pieces and dissolved in acid.

Meeting his own end

The judge’s unconventional sentence united a decidedly fractured society in condemnation, from religious leaders to progressive newspapers, all decried the emotional, savage sentence.

Then-Interior Minister of Pakistan Moinudeen Haider said such a sentence was not permitted, and would be challenged in the High Court. “We are signatories to the Human Rights Commission. Such punishments are not allowed,” he said. The religious authority said the sentence violated Islamic law, which strictly forbids desecrating a body.

More than this, the highly unusual sentence posed ethical and moral questions, that were seemingly unanswerable. To what extent is justice different from vengeance? How justified are courts to meet ugliness and savagery with more ugliness and more savagery? And to what end?

All of these questions would quickly become moot.

On the morning of the October 8, 2001, Iqbal and his accomplice Sajid Ahmad were found dead in their cell in the Kot Lakhpat prison, hanging by their bedsheets. Although ruled a suicide, the autopsy noted that they were severely beaten before death

Kot Lakhpat prison

Exposing wounds and woes

Many things were brought to light throughout the whirlwind case. Once again, the victims of these killers are society’s most vulnerable – young children in poverty. Can you imagine 100 children from Pakistan’s richest families disappearing? Can you imagine even one? It’s an impossibility that sadly points to the uneven value of human life, so often tied to financial worth.

Another reoccurring theme that is revisited here is the near total incompetence of the police. The death of these children amplified people’s lack of trust and confidence in the police, after all, only 25 of Iqbal’s victims were ever reported missing.

“It never occurred to me to go to the police for help,” the mother of one of the victims reportedly told Time magazine. They were viewed as a nuisance, not a help. People would go out of their way to avoid having to deal with the police for fear of being shaken down – a familiar trend across the Arab world as well.

Most perplexingly, the police were well aware of Iqbal and his proclivities toward under-aged children, having caught him at least three times sexually abusing young boys. Yet he was released after each humiliating arrest, allegedly bribing his way out. He was left free to roam, and to kill 100 little boys.

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