The ISHI Team is interested in learning more about forensic science operations from around the world. We especially like to highlight laboratories that exemplify excellence despite operating in challenging conditions.
In this interview we talk to Dr. Mohammad Ashraf Tahir who began his career in the United States as a bench scientist and concluded his US career as the executive director of the Cuyahoga County Forensic Science Laboratory. In 2011 he was recruited to oversee the Punjab Forensic Science Agency where he is the Director General. The PFSA laboratory covers an area of nearly 170,000 square feet, employs approximately 1062 employees (scientific & non-scientific staff) and receives more than 100,000 cases which amounts to 1.5 Million Exhibits per year.
Interview written and condensed by Carol Bingham, Promega
How long has the Punjab Forensic Science Agency been in operation?
The Punjab Forensic Science Agency is a state-of-the-art, first of its kind and ISO17025 certified forensic laboratory in Pakistan that was established in 2011, through an act of parliament known as the “Punjab Forensic Science Agency Act 2007”.
How large is the area serviced by the agency?
The Punjab Forensic Science Agency mainly serves Pakistan’s most populous province, with an estimated population of more than 110 Million as well as the second largest province with an estimated area of 205,344 square kilometers (79,284 square miles). However, all high profile and major cases are also referred to the Punjab Forensic Science Agency from other provinces across Pakistan.
The Punjab Forensic Science Agency has established 8 Satellite Stations in Divisional Headquarters of the Punjab which are fully equipped with modern forensic tools and highly trained staff. All stations remain fully functional on a 24/7 basis for collection of physical evidence from crime scenes in cases including explosions, sexual assaults, murders, homicides, robbery/theft, cybercrimes and fire/arson on the request of local police. Apart from crime scene processing and evidence collection, these stations also provide evidence collection training to local police and other Law Enforcement Agencies.
How many cases do you take in each year?
The Punjab Forensic Science Agency receives more than 100,000 cases each year comprising approximately 1,500,000 exhibits for forensic examination.
How were these cases handled before the PFSA was established? Were there shortcomings in the services provided before PFSA was operational?
Before the establishment of the Punjab Forensic Science Agency, the forensic analysis of evidence was non-existent. Various Chemical Laboratories were undertaking so-called “forensic analysis”. These chemical laboratories were built in 1906 and the technology, equipment and methodology were never upgraded. Therefore, the laboratories were obsolete and the so-called “forensic analysis” was not up to international standards. Reports produced before the establishment of PFSA were not credible. Hence, the judiciary never gave any weight to forensic reports provided by the agency during trials.
What forensic disciplines are included in the services provided by your agency?
The PFSA consists of a full-service Crime Laboratory and Institute of Forensic Sciences containing a state-of-the-art Mock Crime Scene Training facility.
There are fourteen disciplines of Forensic Science in the Punjab Forensic Science Agency including: Crime Scene Investigation, Death Scene Investigation, Firearms & Toolmarks, Latent Fingerprints, Polygraph, DNA & Serology, Trace Chemistry, Narcotics, Toxicology, Pathology, Computer Forensics, Audio Visual Analysis, Questioned Documents and Forensic Photography.
How many staff are employed at your facility in Lahore?
Our staff include highly qualified scientists with PhD and M-Phil degrees. Our current count of employees at PFSA is 1062 comprised of 457 scientific staff and 605 administrative/technical/support staff.
What were the biggest challenges you dealt with when setting up the facility?
The biggest challenges we dealt with while setting up facility were:
Since there were no established programs for forensic science in Pakistan, the biggest challenge was to find employees with a suitable educational background, train them to work in an international crime laboratory and get them certified in their respective fields.
Purchasing, installing and validating equipment was another challenge. As this kind of equipment had never been procured, installed and operated before in Pakistan it was quite a cumbersome procedure to get it done according to international standards.
Acceptance of the Forensic Laboratory into the Judicial System of Pakistan was another challenge. The Judicial System before the establishment of PFSA had never relied on physical evidence or forensic reports. Eyewitness evidence was given more weight than physical evidence. After the establishment of PFSA there was a paradigm shift away from eyewitness evidence to physical evidence in the criminal justice system of Pakistan and eventually the prosecution rate was increased.
Training of First Responders and Crime Scene Investigators for the Police force was quite a challenge. The Police in Pakistan had never used Personal Protective Equipment to package evidence before establishment of PFSA. Moreover, collection, packaging and transportation of physical evidence was not done properly, and many evidence items were compromised. PFSA trained first responders and crime scene investigators to properly collect, package and transport evidence in a forensically sound manner. Furthermore, we undertook training of the Judiciary, Prosecutors and high-ranking police officers to make them understand the importance of forensics in criminal justice system.
What have been some of your biggest accomplishments?
The Punjab Forensic Science Agency is the sole institution providing forensic expertise across Pakistan. Due to its professionalism, the PFSA has earned the confidence of the Judiciary, stakeholders in the Criminal Justice System, Federal Agencies, the International Forensic Community and the General Public. Some of the biggest accomplishments of PFSA are as follows:
PFSA has been following the ISO 17025 Standard since its inception. Internationally accreditation is generally attained after 10-12 years of work. However, with dedication and a huge effort, the PFSA was able to attain accreditation in record span of 5 years from an internationally recognized body, the United Kingdom Accreditation Services (UKAS). Final assessments were carried out by the technical expert from United Kingdom, Czech Republic and Lithuania.
The Assessor remarked:
“It was the first time in 10 years I have known of an organization going for assessment to only have one minor noncompliance out of 228 Clauses. PFSA is role model for other organizations all over the world”
Since its inception in 2011, Punjab Forensic Science Agency has received 558,093 cases and issued reports in 548,398 cases.
PFSA is equipped with the most modern and state-of-the-art equipment. A Firearms Database has been established at PFSA for keeping records of crimes and criminals. Since its installation in December 2015, our firearms database has more than 50,000 cartridge/ casings data and has produced 324 HITs.
The Punjab Forensic Science Agency provided assistance to UNDP for the establishment of a forensic lab at SWAT KPK. PFSA is also assisting in the establishment of a National Forensic Science Agency, Sindh Forensic Science Agency and KPK Forensic Science Laboratory according to international standards. Furthermore, PFSA has provided 6 months of extensive training to the staff of KPK, Balochistan and National Forensic Science Laboratories. We have also given training to the 8 scientists of the General Department of Forensic Science and Criminology Head Quarters, Dubai Police in the field of Firearms and Toolmarks.
Punjab Forensic Science Agency is incorporating forensic training for stake holders including Prosecutors, Judiciary and law enforcement agencies. To date, more than 20,000 officials of various departments / organizations have been trained by PFSA.
Punjab Forensic Science Agency has gained credibility and received physical evidence in criminal cases from international community as well including the United States of America, United Kingdom, Germany, Norway, Egypt etc.
The Punjab Forensic Science Agency has played a key role in solving all the high profile and terrorism related cases across Pakistan.
Does Pakistan currently have a DNA database? If not, are you working towards establishing a database? What are the challenges?
A DNA database was established at PFSA in October 2014. BodeMATCH software is employed for the DNA database which is a private, web-based DNA databasing and matching system. The database is designed to maintain a local or national database of DNA profiles. The easy-to-use software stores and matches DNA profiles into customized groups. The software can be used to assist in investigations to identify individuals or maintain laboratory quality control during the analysis and reporting of profiles. Salient features of PFSA DNA Database include: optimization for forensic casework and databasing programs, user-defined profile management, easy-to-use, quality assurance and enhanced security and user traceability.
The DNA database at PFSA, is housed in a unique facility in the country. It took years of effort to develop the rich DNA database at PFSA. Currently approximately 30,000 DNA profiles are stored in the PFSA DNA database. The DNA database facility has provided tremendous support to the police and judiciary in a number of criminal cases. PFSA has also helped to write DNA legislation for Punjab Province.
The PFSA DNA Database is not only helping to solve crimes of a heinous nature in Pakistan but is also of paramount significance internationally. Ever since the acquisition of the sole DNA Database in Pakistan, PFSA has received dozens of requests from Interpol to enter the provided DNA profiles in the repository and execute customized searches. These DNA profiles may belong to the relatives of missing persons, unidentified victims of accidents or internationally proclaimed offenders and terrorists. PFSA has received such requests through the National Central Bureau-Pakistan (Federal Investigation Agency) from Manchester (United Kingdom), Sarajevo (Bosnia & Herzegovina), Athens (Greece), Wiesbaden (Germany), Stockholm (Sweden), Paris (France), Copenhagen (Denmark), Warsaw (Poland), Canberra (Australia), Kiev (Ukraine) and Madrid (Spain) to name a few.
What is your vision for the future of PFSA?
Punjab Forensic Science Agency was established with a vision to achieve International Accreditations and to bring criminals to justice and provide support to judicial and investigative systems of the province and country alike.
Currently Punjab Forensic Science Agency is implementing the following projects to fulfill its vision
Punjab Forensic Science Agency Training Laboratory: PFSA is establishing a state-of-art Training Laboratory at Lahore which will provide forensic training. It will serve as Center of Excellence in the field of training in Pakistan. It will save foreign exchange by training scientists from the Punjab Forensic Science Agency, Punjab Agriculture Food and Drug Authority, and other Forensic Science Laboratories of Pakistan. Moreover, it will also incorporate forensic training to the stake holders including Prosecutors, Judiciary and Law Enforcements & Intelligence Agencies of Pakistan.
Automated Fingerprint Identification System: An international standard fingerprints database has been approved by the Government of the Punjab, Pakistan to obtain, store, and analyze fingerprint data and it will be established by June 2020.
Punjab Agriculture, Food and Drug Authority: A 3-in-1 state-of-the art, international standard, purpose -built Laboratory for testing medicines, food and agriculture inputs is under construction. It will be completed by December 2020. This facility is 400,000 sq. feet with 1100 Employees.
Does your lab have a success story to tell? We would love to hear from you and share your accomplishments with the forensic community. Contact the ISHI editorial board to express your interest.
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