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Assessing Forensic Science Landscape in Pakistan

Since 2001, authorities have been revamping forensic science infrastructure across the country to aid crime investigation, but are all provinces on an even footing?
By Shafiq Sharif

A law enforcement agency recovered a laptop from a terror suspect caught from Lahore in 2015. It hoped to dig out useful information from its hard drive but there was a huge problem.

The laptop was a complete wreck. It was burned and bent out of shape. Without much hope, the agency contacted forensic science experts. However, the experts didn’t seem fazed by the task. They accepted the challenge, and in no time a terror network was unearthed based on evidence recovered from the laptop.

In Brief

  • Forensic science, a key pillar of the criminal justice system, has long been ignored in Pakistan. The menace of terrorism, however, proved a wake-up call and efforts were made to streamline and strengthen this important aspect of criminal investigations. Today we have numerous success stories coming out from the National Forensic Science Agency as well as the Punjab Forensic Science Agency. Our sustainable response and concerted efforts to promote forensic sciences can certainly benefit us beyond our imagination. All we need is consistency in policies and a strong will.

Forensic science is one of the most important components in building a case against prime suspects in modern law. It involves application of technology and scientific methods to investigation of crimes.

Technological advancement has further increased the role and use of forensic science in crime investigation. The crime scene investigators can now dig out major leads from a blind crime scene, even when unconventional or old-school techniques are used by criminals.

Who can forget the devastating incident of terrorism at Lahore’s crowded Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park in March 2016? Over 70 lives were lost in the attack. Intelligence officials were able to identify those believed to be involved in the attack with help from forensic scientists, who analyzed different DNA samples collected from the crime scene. In the following sections, MIT Technology Review Pakistan presents the history of forensic science’s application to criminal investigation in the country and assesses the current landscape at the federal and provincial levels.

A Brief History of Forensic Science in Pakistan

The first forensic lab in the region predates the partition of India. It was set up in 1906 at the photographic section of Punjab’s criminal investigation department on Birdwood Road, Lahore.

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By 1947, the lab was actively serving as a training center, as well as dealing with examination of firearms, cloth fibers, dust samples, counterfeit coins, forged currency, secret inks, and hand-written and typed material. After partition, the government of Pakistan established three more forensic science labs in Quetta, Peshawar, and Karachi.

The first forensic lab in the region predates the partition of India. It was set up in 1906 at the photographic section of Punjab’s criminal investigation department on Birdwood Road, Lahore.

However, over the subsequent years, witness testimony and confessions became the preferred way of gathering evidence and forensic-based investigation methodologies fell by the wayside. But the trend took a turn after 2001. The federal government decided to build more labs and upgrade existing ones across the country. A comprehensive 10-year development plan was designed for the purpose. The labs were meant to help improve criminal identification facilities and enhance the capacity of law enforcement agencies, through use of modern scientific tools and latest criminal investigation techniques.

The National Forensic Science Agency (NFSA)

The National Forensic Science Agency (NFSA) was approved by the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) in 2002, with an initial budget of PKR 1.29 billion. The agency was established as an autonomous body to develop a master plan for development of forensic science laboratories across the country. A training institute was also to be set up to produce highly skilled technical staff and forensic experts.

Authorities at the NFSA developed a forensic lab which became functional in 2006, but the plan to set up a training and teaching institution is yet to be implemented.

“So far, the agency has developed a fingerprint and DNA database with records of more than 200,000 criminals,” asserts Rizwan Khan, a spokesperson for the NFSA. “The agency has helped solve 2,540 cases out of 2,659 brought to it,” he claims. That is a success rate of around 96 percent, he adds.

Some of the high-profile cases in which the NFSA’s services were sought are the Lal Masjid operation in Islamabad and suicide attack on a political rally at Karachi’s Karsaz area in 2007; former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and the Marriot Hotel bombing in 2008; a deadly fire that killed 258 people at a garments factory in Karachi’s Baldia Town in 2012; and the twin suicide blasts at Islamabad’s Sector F-8 district courts in 2014.

The equipment available with the NFSA includes genetic analyzers, centrifuge and PCR machines, a biosafety cabinet, an RT-PCR, vertical freezers and workstations for the DNA section. The agency has also acquired crime scene kits, first aid kits and digital cameras; brushes, applicators and polilight to detect fingerprints; Regula 1010 and 1019; VSC 6000/HS; ESDA 2; stereo microscope (Lica); and comparison microscope.

“20 of our scientists have been trained by Australian experts in DNA, fingerprint, firearms, tool marks, and document analysis, and ballistics, explosives, and crime scene investigation,” says Khan. Two others were trained in DNA techniques in China and the U.K., respectively, and one got training in narcotics testing from France, he adds.

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“NFSA is not only a forensic lab but also an institution which has, so far, trained dozens of officials from Balochistan, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP),” says Dr. Syed Kaleem Imam, project director, NFSA.

The Punjab Forensic Science Agency (PFSA)

After devolution of power to the provinces under the 18th constitutional amendment, the Punjab government was the first to proceed with the establishment of a forensic science agency. Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif gathered a team of experts to run the agency and oversee development of a state-of-the-art forensic lab constructed over an area of 53 kanals.

Source: National Forensic Science Agency (NFSA)

“The establishment of such a forensic lab takes five to seven years the world over,” notes Dr. Mohammad Ashraf Tahir, director general of the PFSA. “We completed the task in a remarkable three year period,” he says.

The deployed technology includes triple-quadrupole mass spectrometer, gas chromatograph with mass-spectrometry, liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry, gas chromatograph with flame ionization detector, gas chromatograph with NPD, and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. In the narcotics and trace chemistry lab, PFSA is using FTIR spectrometry, ultraviolet-visible spectrophotometry, gas chromatograph with mass spectrometry, and gas chromatograph with flame ionization detector.

The PFSA now has 14 different fully equipped forensic laboratories. These include labs specializing in DNA, serology, crime and death scene investigations, fire arms/toolmarks, latent finger marks, forensic histology and pathology, postmortem toxicology, narcotics, chemistry trace, question documents, audio visuals, cybercrime investigations, and computer forensic.

Tahir claims that the PFSA labs are comparable with any leading international forensic lab, including the forensic lab run by the U.S.’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Dr. Mohammad Ashraf, Director General of the PFSA

“The PFSA employs 323 scientists,” he says. “We are rapidly expanding our setup to provide maximum help and support to law enforcement agencies (LEAs).”

“Only a few years into its establishment in 2012, the PFSA now ranks as the second largest forensic agency of the world,” says its director general. According to him, the agency has so far solved 248,000 cases which include incidents of terrorism, kidnapping for ransom, high value robberies, and murders.

Today, the PFSA has regional offices in Lahore, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Rawalpindi, Sahiwal, Multan, Bahawalpur, Sargodha, and Dera Ghazi Khan. The agency staffers at the regional level have been trained to collect circumstantial evidence on their own without assistance from the central office.

Further explaining the case of the burned laptop recovered from a terror suspect in 2015 (mentioned earlier), Dr. Tahir says the data unearthed through computer forensics enabled intelligence officials to nab the criminals and foil their plans to undertake more terrorist activities.

“Luckily, the hard drive was not burned completely. We were able to recover data from its inner core which was intact. We attached the recovered hard disk to the hardware ‘write blocker’ and recovered all the deleted files and folders,” he says. This data showed how terror networks were operating across the country. Intelligence agencies traced and arrested two different gangs based on the information recovered by PFSA experts from the burned laptop.

Dr. Tahir said another challenging case successfully solved by the PFSA was the identification of two men burnt alive by rioters following suicide attacks on two churches in Lahore’s Youhanabad neighbourhood in August 2015.

“It was quite difficult to obtain DNA samples because of exposure to fire. I personally visited the crime scene and after a prolonged effort managed to find samples that could be used in examination. We worked on the samples and identified both victims in only a few days,” he says.

After devolution of power to the provinces under the 18th constitutional amendment, the Punjab government was the first to proceed with the establishment of a forensic science agency.

The PFSA has not just cracked local cases but also shared its expertise with foreign countries, says Dr. Tahir. It acted as a referee lab in the Ohio police shooting in the U.S. in 2015. “Chief Prosecutor Rick Bel had approached us seeking assistance with investigations,” he says. “PFSA’s findings on spent bullets and cartridges were admitted in the U.S. court as expert and conclusive ballistic analysis.” The prosecutors had reached out to the PFSA after forensic exams at two labs in the Ohio state yielded contradictory results. Dr. Tahir says the PFSA has also provided services to law enforcement agencies in the U.K., Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Norway.

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Forensic Science in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa

Despite being hit hard by terrorism, KP province does not currently have an autonomous body to oversee forensic science labs. However, in the recent past, KP police have developed an Institute of Forensic Science (IFS) in Peshawar with assistance from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Australian Federal Police. The institute now houses the Forensic Science Laboratory established in 1976. It is the primary crime investigation lab in the province, consisting of six specialized units for analysis of chemicals and narcotics, latent fingerprints, firearms and toolmarks, questionable documents, forensic photography, and digital forensics. The lab provides forensic services to the Pakistan Customs, the Excise and Taxation Department, the Anti-Narcotics Force, the National Accountability Bureau, the Anti-Corruption Establishment, the Frontier Corps, the FATA administration, and Malakand Levies.

“The lab has a staff of 52 persons, of whom 24 are forensic science experts,” says Rab Nawaz Khan, the lab director. According to him, the lab has so far dealt with more than 40,000 cases. “Though we have a small unit, still we have contributed 500,000 samples of criminals’ data to the national database.”

He says proposals for upgrade of the lab and development of an autonomous forensic science agency are under consideration.

Forensic Science in Sindh and Balochistan

Sindh got its first forensic science laboratory in 1958. This was followed by the establishment of a Criminalistics Division in 1983 as the pre-partition Fingerprint Bureau was merged with the Forensic Science Laboratory. The division was renamed as the Forensic Division in 2009.

Since then, the forensic wing of Sindh police have worked on around 50,000 cases. “A majority of these cases were related to target killing,” says Dr. Syed Abbas Rizvi, additional inspector general (AIG) of Sindh police’s forensics division.

“The forensic division presently consists of units for audio visual analysis, digital forensics, chemical sample monitoring, crime scene investigation, firearms and ballistics, forensic photography, automated fingerprint identification, and latent fingerprints,” he says.

In Balochistan, a provincial forensic lab was established in the Police Department during 1983-1984.

“We have only two certified chemical examiners,” says Shakeel Durrani, deputy inspector general (crimes) of Balochistan police. He also has the additional charge of the forensic wing. “The equipment available to us is of quite low quality,” he says. According to him, the province’s forensic science lab has only four sections. These are chemical, firearm and toolmark, questionable documents, and fingerprints sections.

What is Computer Forensics?

While explaining the process involved in computer forensics, Mohammad Awais, a computer scientist at Punjab Forensic Science Agency, says there are eight basic steps in computer forensics including verification, system description, evidence acquisition, time analysis, media and artifact analysis, string or byte search, data recovery, and reporting results. He explains that verification is all about assessing the case.

“This preliminary step will help determine the characteristics of the incident and define the best approach in order to identify, collect, and preserve evidence,” he says.

The second step, system description, is about gathering data, taking notes and describing the system you are going to analyze. “It also includes outlining the operating system and its general configuration such as disk format, amount of RAM, and the location of the evidence,” he elaborates.

“Evidence acquisition means identifying possible sources of data, acquiring volatile and non-volatile data, verifying the integrity of the data, and ensuring chain of custody,” Awais says, adding that the data should be gathered from the hard drive by using a hardware device like a write blocker or using an incident-response-and-forensic toolkit such as Helix.

“After evidence acquisition, scientists start the investigation and analysis in forensics lab by doing a timeline analysis that includes information such as when files were modified, accessed, changed, and created in a human readable format, known as MAC time evidence,” he explains. The media and artifact analysis is usually done using databases like the National Software Reference Library and hash comparisons whereas string or byte search is all about using tools that will search the low-level raw images and in-data recovery. Scientists usually analyze slack space and unallocated space, and do in-depth file system analysis in order to find files of interest. The final phase involves reporting the results of the analysis and describing the actions performed, he concludes.

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Way Forward

The establishment of an autonomous agency for forensic sciences in the wake of the 18th amendment has strengthened the capacity of LEAs in the Punjab. With the PFSA at their aid, the LEAs in Punjab are better placed now to track down criminals and to prevent crime. To reap similar benefits, other provinces need to also proceed toward setting up autonomous agencies to oversee and develop forensic sciences infrastructure in their jurisdictions.

Shafiq Sharif is a Lahore based journalist. He has been reporting on crime for over 10 years now.

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