A rapidly unfolding child sex abuse scandal in eastern Pakistan has pit the parents of alleged victims against police, raising troubling questions about whether the conservative Muslim country is equipped to handle a massive scandal rife with rumor and stifled by taboo.

The parents allege that a gang of up to 25 men forced hundreds of children in three villages in Punjab province to perform sex acts on camera as early as 2007, according to the news agency Reuters. Lawyers say the videos — which purport to show drugged victims as young as 6 being forced to perform sex acts with other children under the threat of violence — were sold for profit or used to blackmail the victims' impoverished families, according to the Al Jazeera network.

Copies of the videos were allegedly sold in local markets, according to news reports. In a clip viewed by a Reuters reporter, "a boy cowers and cries before putting his hands over the camera lens. In another, a groggy boy is beaten and abused as a man tells him: 'I will not stop until you smile.'"

Latif Sra, a lawyer representing some of the alleged victims, told Reuters: "I have personally met hundreds of parents who have not yet come forward to file official complaints, either out of fear or shame."

Yet, police have made only a few arrests and confiscated fewer than 20 videos. The Associated Press put the arrest total at seven; Pakistani newspapers have reported that the number of suspects in police custody is as high as 12.

Police have sought to play down the scandal, saying the videos showed consensual sex among teenagers and were brought to light because of a land dispute among rival factions.

"It's a very murky situation," District Police Officer Rai Babar told Reuters, noting that seven cases involving 11 children had been registered.

“This group was active since 2007 when they were school students,” Shahzad Sultan, a senior police official, told the New York Times on Sunday, referring to the suspects.

He added: “The videos are old.”

Reports of the alleged sex ring began to emerge last month after relatives of some of the purported victims approached police, according to the English-language Nation newspaper. The full scale of the alleged abuse came to light last week, the paper reported, after parents accused police of covering up the scandal during protests that left dozens injured.

In deeply conservative Pakistan, where family honor is highly valued and discussion of sexuality is suppressed, activists say a culture of silence has allowed the abuse to flourish.

"It is important to break the silence and challenge the taboo around it," human rights activist Samar Minallah told the Agence France-Presse. "How can a child be safe if he knows that his parents, the culture and societal norms expect him to remain silent to uphold the family's 'honor'?"

As the number of alleged victims and perpetrators fluctuates, the scandal continues to garner headlines, prompting statements from the country's leading political figures, including Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab. On Sunday, he ordered a judicial inquiry, according to Reuters.

"Those involved in the case will be severely punished," Sharif, brother of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, told the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. "They will not be able to escape their fate. The affected families will be provided with justice at any cost."

Imran Khan, the leader of Movement for Justice, condemned the "horrific acts" and promised that his opposition party would "pursue this issue of child abuse in Parliament."

Saba Sadiq, head of Punjab’s Child Protection and Welfare Bureau, described the case as “the largest-ever child abuse scandal in Pakistan’s history” and called for an inquiry at the federal level, according to the Nation.

But in a statement released Monday, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan expressed doubts about the effectiveness of a judicial inquiry of any kind:

“HRCP is horrified to learn of the child sexual abuse saga in Kasur. There might be some ambiguity as to the number of children targeted, the time when the abuse took place, and whether a property dispute was involved, although how that makes the matter any less horrific is lost on us, but it is now certain that many children had been abused and their abuse filmed.
“Judicial commissions and inquiries rarely serve the purpose in criminal cases. The plight of these children deserves nothing less than a prompt and professional investigation—which must be free from interference and influence — and prosecution. All attempts made to suppress or twist the information — and there have been many —s hould be strongly condemned and must also be probed."

As politicians call for investigations, victims' families maintain that their loved ones are being ignored and even arrested.

Rubina Bibi told Reuters that when she attempted to file a report about her 13-year-old son at a local police station this year, "the police station clerk told me to get lost and I was thrown out."

"My son is in the videos, he is a victim," she said. "Our children were forced into this. They were humiliated. But the police are treating them like criminals."

Another mother, Shakila Bibi, told Reuters that her son, another alleged victim, is being punished by police.

"I went to the police station to file a complaint, but instead of registering a [report], they took my son into custody."
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