Christians Narrowly Escape Flying Bullets in Pakistan

Evangelistic team cheats death; separately, stray gunshot leads to false charges.

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, July 15 (CDN) — Suspected Islamic extremists fired bullets into the car of a Christian evangelist with impunity last month, while in another Punjab Province town stray gunfire led to two Christians being falsely accused of murder.

Following a youth revival in Essa Nagri, near Faisalabad, the Rev. Kamran Pervaiz, a guest speaker from Rawalpindi, was in the passenger seat of a Toyota Corolla returning to Faisalabad with his team on June 25 when 12 armed men tried to stop their car, the pastor said.

Pastor Naeem Joseph, an organizer of the revival, was leading the ministry team by motorbike, and he led them past the armed men as they reached the Narawala Road bypass at about 1:15 a.m.

“I didn’t stop,” Pastor Joseph told Compass. “A gunshot was fired at me, but it missed, and instead of going straight I turned right towards the Sudhar bypass and took the motorbike into the fields.”

Pervaiz Sohtra was driving the car.

“Rev. Kamran asked me to increase the speed,” Sohtra said. “The armed men shouted to stop and directly fired at the car. I saw from the rearview mirror that they were coming after us, and I told everyone to stay down.”

The rear window suddenly broke to pieces as bullets pierced the car.

“Pervaiz [Sohtra] turned off the lights and took the car into the fields and turned off the engine,” Kamran Pervaiz said. “The attackers drove by, near the road, without noticing the fields. No one was injured. We were all safe.”

Pervaiz said he was certain that they were targeted because of their involvement in the Christian revival meeting; response to Pervaiz’s preaching jumped when a crippled man was healed after the evangelist prayed for him at the event. Muslim groups had warned the Christians to abort the meeting after banners and posters were displayed across Essa Nagri.

“A local Muslim group tore the banners and threatened us, telling us not to organize the meeting or else we would face dire consequences,” said Salman John, one of the organizers.

A police patrol responded to the ministry team’s emergency number phone call, reaching them in the field shortly before 2 a.m. and escorting Pervaiz and the others in their bullet-damaged car to Model Town, Faisalabad.

Pastor Joseph filed an application for a First Information Report (FIR) at Ghulam Muhammad Abad police station in Faisalabad. Acting Superintendent Shabir Muhammad took the application but declined to register an FIR due to pressure from local Muslim groups, he said.

“I am trying to register the FIR, but the things are out of my control at higher levels,” Muhammad told Compass.


False Arrest

In Gujrat, by contrast, police soon arrested two young Christian men after shots fired into the air by a drunken man killed a neighbor.

Cousins Saleem Masih, 22, and John Masih, 23, were falsely accused of robbery as well as murder, a later police investigation found, and they were released. Both worked at the farm of Chaudhry Ashraf Gondal, who became inebriated along with friend Chaudhry Farhan on June 18, according to Riaz Masih, father of Saleem Masih.

“They were feasting and then got drunk and started firing gunshots into the air for fun, and one of the bullets hit a passer-by near their home, and he died on the spot,” Riaz Masih said.

Yousaf Masih, father of John Masih, told Compass that when police arrived, Ashraf Gondal “gave them some money and asked them to take care of the matter.”

On June 22, police went to Yousaf Masih’s house asking for Saleem and John Masih. When Yousaf Masih said they were at work and asked if everything was alright, the inspector told him that the two young men had robbed and murdered shopkeeper Malik Sajid on June 18 at about 11:30 p.m.

“My son and Saleem came home around 6 p.m. and they didn’t go out after that,” Yousaf Masih told the officers. “On June 18 they were at home – they didn’t go out, so how could they murder Sajid?”

Police went to Ashraf Gondal’s farm and arrested the two young Christians. When police told Ashraf Gondal that they had robbed and murdered Sajid, he replied that they were capable of such a crime as they often asked him for advances on their pay and “they even sell alcohol.” Alcohol is illegal for Muslims in Pakistan and can be sold only by non-Muslims with a license.

Riaz Masih said he and Yousaf Masih rushed to Ashraf Gondal for help, but that he spoke harshly to them, saying, “Your sons have robbed and murdered an innocent person, and they even sell alcohol. Why should I help criminals, and especially Christian criminals?”

The two fathers went to the police station, where the Station House Officer (SHO) refused to allow them to meet with their sons. They went to Pastor Zaheer Latif.

“I’ve known Saleem and John since they were small kids, and they could never rob or murder anyone,” Pastor Latif told Compass. “They were targeted because they are Christians. The SHO and Ashraf knew that these boys would not be able to prove themselves innocent.”

The pastor referred the fathers to the senior superintendent of police operations officer Raon Irfan, who undertook an investigation. When he spoke with Ashraf Gondal, Irfan said, the landowner denied that Farhan had visited him on June 18.

“I have read the inquiry report by the SHO,” Irfan told Compass. “I am aware of the fact that this SHO is a corrupt person, and it is clearly a false report.”

Irfan said that, after talking with villagers, he concluded that Farhan was with Ashraf Gondal in Gujrat on June 18, and that they shot into the air for fun and one of the bullets killed Sajid.

“Ashraf bribed the SHO to arrest someone else and file charges of robbery and murder,” Irfan said. “Ashraf is an influential person, and he told the SHO to file the case against Saleem and John, as they are Christians and would not be able to prove themselves innocent.”

Advocacy group Peace Pakistan filed an appeal of the false charges with the Gujrat Session Court on June 25. In light of Irfan’s report, Session Judge Muhammad Gulfam Malik on June 27 released Saleem Masih and John Masih and suspended the SHO for corruption and filing a false case.

No action, however, was taken against Ashraf Gondal or Farhan. Police have not arrested either of them.

Report from Compass Direct News

Pakistani Muslims Abduct Young Christian Woman, Family Says

Mother beaten on two occasions for trying to recover her; police refuse to prosecute.

LAHORE, Pakistan, May 6 (CDN) — Muslims who kidnapped and forcibly converted an 18-year-old Christian woman to Islam severely beat her mother on two occasions to discourage her from trying to recover her daughter, lawyers said.

Muhammad Akhter and Muhammad Munir on April 25 broke into the home of 50-year-old widow Fazeelat Bibi while her sons were at work and beat her because they were upset at her continuous demands that they return her daughter Saira, Christian Lawyers Foundation (CLF) leaders told Compass.

CLF President Khalid Gill said that neighbors’ calls to the police emergency number went unheeded as the men beat her in Lahore’s predominantly Muslim Bostaan Colony.

On April 18 Muhammad Akhter and members of his family had beaten her with clubs and ripped her clothes when the widow, having received a tearful phone call from her kidnapped daughter that day, went to their house to argue for her release.

In Saira’s telephone call to her mother, received at the house of Muslim neighbor Musarat Bibi, who is a constable, the young woman was crying as she said that Munir and Akhter were spreading false rumors that she had eloped with Munir, Fazeelat said. She said her daughter told her how Munir, Akhter and Munir’s sister Billo Bibi had kidnapped her, stolen the jewelry of her dowry, forced her to convert to Islam and were pressuring her to marry Munir.

At the time she was kidnapped on March 10, Saira was engaged to a young Christian man of Youhanabad, a large Christian slum on the outskirts of Lahore, Fazeelat Bibi said.

“Saira’s brothers and I were very joyful because we were about to fix her wedding date,” she said.

Previously the radical Muslim family lived next door to the Christian family. On March 10 Munir, who is Akhter’s uncle, came to the Christian family’s home and told Saira that her mother was ill at her hospital workplace and wanted to see her immediately, Fazeelat Bibi said.

“Then Muhammad Munir deceitfully abducted Saira,” she said. “It seemed as if Saira had vanished into thin air. At first my three sons and I sons searched for Saira, but our efforts were futile.”  

She accused Munir, Akhter and Munir’s sister Billo Bibi of kidnapping her daughter. They have continued to threaten to kill her if she persists in trying to recover her daughter, she said. Her daughter, she added, has called her “persistently” from Charrar village saying that she has been kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam and is being pressured to marry Munir against her will.

“This also reveals that Saira has not tied the knot with Munir yet,” Gill told Compass.

The distraught mother said she approached Kotlakhpat Police Station Inspector Rana Shafiq seeking help to recover her daughter, but that he flatly refused. The inspector told her the issue could be resolved at the local Bostaan Colony meeting, she said; the rulings of such a meeting of local elders, known as a Punchayat, have the equivalent of court authority in Pakistan.

Fazeelat Bibi said that several such meetings produced no resolution to her daughter’s kidnapping, but that while present she heard the false rumor that her daughter had wed Munir. At the meetings she also learned that the Muslim men were keeping Saira at Charrar village outside Lahore.

Fazeelat Bibi told Gill and CLF Secretary Azhar Kaleem said that she was somewhat satisfied to learn at the meetings that her daughter was at least safe, but her relief vanished after the April 18 call from Saira. Her daughter told her that she had tried to escape three times, she said.

Once again the frail, 50-year-old woman sought the help of Inspector Shafiq, and again he refused to help, the CLF leaders said. Gill and Kaleem said that Shafiq was explicitly inclined to favor his fellow Muslims in the case, and that he told her to move to a Christian slum as no one would help her in Bostaan Colony.

Gill, who is also head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance in Punjab Province, and CLF Secretary Kaleem said they believe that Akhter, Munir and Billo Bibi had heavily bribed the inspector to keep him from prosecuting the Muslims.

Shafiq declined to respond to Compass calls, and the registrar of the Kotlakhpat police station, Abdul Qayyum, said Shafiq was not available for comment.

Saira was just 2 months old when her father, Pervaiz Masih, died and her mother and three brothers moved from their native Yansonabad village to Lahore in search of a better life, Fazeelat Bibi said. She said that she began working as a sanitary worker at a hospital in order to support them, while her sons began working as day-laborers when they reached their teenage years.

Saira is her only daughter, Fazeelat Bibi said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Pakistani Brothers Threaten Family of Catholic Who Wed Muslim

Before attempted abduction of groom’s mother, Muslims accused Christians of kidnapping.

SARGODHA, Pakistan, April 19 (CDN) — Family members of a Muslim woman who married a Roman Catholic here have threatened to kidnap the groom’s mother and sister and kill the newlyweds and other relatives, the Christian family members said.

Muslims have heavily bribed police to allow the crimes, sources told the Christian family.

The brothers of Sadia Bashir, the 22-year-old Muslim woman who married the Christian, issued the same threats most recently on April 12, said her father, Mushtaq Bhatti. After the young couple wed in court on May 16, the Muslim family accused the groom, 24-year-old Jibran Masih, and his mother and father of kidnapping, for which they languished in jail for several months last year.

Masih, his mother Nargis Bibi and Bhatti could have been sentenced to death, a life sentence or a fine had the Lahore High Court not declared them innocent in December.

The high court ordered the Muslim family to stop issuing dire threats to the Christian family, but threats of kidnapping and murder have continued with police encouragement, Bhatti said. On Jan. 18, he said, Bashir’s brothers tried to kidnap his wife, Jibran Masih’s mother, as she walked back home after escorting another daughter to college in Sargodha.

The brothers, Muhammad Arif and Muhammad Tariq, got out of a red car and began dragging her to it, tearing off her blouse as she struggled to keep from being put in the car, Nargis Bibi said.

She managed to escape their clutches on the crowded street and immediately reported the incident to the New Satellite Town (NST) police station with her husband, she said. Police reluctantly registered charges of abducting for the purposes of adultery, she said, but they have not arrested the brothers.

“The culprits who tried to kidnap me are still at large, and the Muslim family members with the approval of the NST police are hurling threats to kill us or abduct our college student daughter,” Nargis Bibi told Compass.

On July 1, 2009, Sadia Bashir’s father and mother, Muhammad Bashir and Khursheed Bibi, had charged Nargis Bibi, Bhatti, and Masih with abducting their daughter. Court documents record that Sadia Bashir testified before a Sessions Court judge that she had willingly contracted love marriage with Masih. In her statement, she said that she was not abducted by any members of the accused Christian family and freely decided to wed him. 

Nevertheless, the three Christians remained in jail until Bhatti was able to bring the case before the Lahore High Court. On Dec. 4, 2009 Chief Justice Khwaja Muhammad Sharif acquitted all three of them and ordered the case dropped. The young couple moved out of town to begin their life anew, Nargis Bibi said.

The high court also ordered police to protect the Christian family against the threats of the Muslim family.

“On the First Information Report [FIR] of the Muslim family of Muhammad Bashir falsely charging us with kidnapping, police immediately arrested us,” Nargis Bibi said, “but on our FIR they were idle and have not arrested any of the Muslim culprits.”

Christian sources close to NST police told Bhatti’s relatives that the Muslim family members have heavily bribed police to keep from prosecuting the Muslim brothers, Bhatti said.

Denying the bribery allegations, an NST police spokesman said officers had registered a case, an investigation was underway and that soon the foiled kidnappers would be behind the bars.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Pakistani lawyer faces court for murder of Christian girl

No other year in the last decade has seen more persecution against Pakistani Christians than 2009. As many as 130 Christians were killed through attacks, arrests and detentions throughout the year, according to International Christian Concern. And so far, this year has not been much better, reports MNN.

Late in January, yet another Christian, Shazia Bashir Masih, lost her life at the hands of a Muslim.

"On January 22, a Muslim lawyer by the name of Mohammed Naeem tortured and killed a 12-year-old Christian girl in Lahore, Pakistan," said Jonathan Racho of ICC. The girl was rushed to the hospital after sustaining injuries "but did not recover and passed away," said lawyers of the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).

Masih worked for Naeem as a servant for eight months to help her parents financially. Sources say the 1000 rupees (12 USD) she made a month was her family’s only income.

Naeem, a famous lawyer in the area, reportedly bribed local authorities to prevent his arrest. However, when the police failed to move against Naeem, Masih’s family staged protests outside of government offices.

Their protests attracted the attention of local media, and Pakistan’s president soon heard of the case. At this point, Naeem was arrested along with five other individuals related to the crime.

According to Aid to the Church in Need, Naeem appeared in court on Jan. 26, the day following Masih’s funeral. CLAAS, who is representing the Masih family, presented their case on Jan. 29. The hearing will resume on Feb. 3.

In addition to Naeem being a well-known lawyer in the area, he is also the former president of the Lahore Bar Association, which is the organization that issues licenses to the lawyers of the area. Because of this sway and other bribes Naeem has offered to the Masih family, they have had difficulty finding representation, according to ICC.

However, ICC also reported on a news conference of CLAAS and church leaders, "CLAAS is still determined to go the distance necessary to secure justice for Shazia and her family."

Whatever the outcome of the trial, Racho remained hopeful about the strength of Christians in Pakistan.

"Persecution cannot stop the Gospel from being preached and from Christians being faithful to Christ. On the one hand, there is an increase in persecution; on the other hand, Christians remain faithful to the faith, and they even continue to spread the Gospel and bring Muslims to Christ," said Racho.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

EU Visit to Orissa, India Triggers Barrage of Accusations

Hindu nationalists protest delegation as Christians cite injustices.

NEW DELHI, February 8 (CDN) — A delegation from the European Union concluded a “fruitful” trip to India’s violence-torn Orissa state on Friday (Feb. 5) amid a swirl of protests by Hindu nationalist groups and cries of injustice by Christians.

The delegation was able to hold “open and frank” discussions with Kandhamal officials on the visit, said Gabriele Annis of the Embassy of Italy.

“We had a very good meeting with the Kandhamal district administration,” Annis told reporters. “It is fruitful. We had open and frank discussion. It helped us in understanding the situation and understanding happenings over the past 15 months.”

The delegation was led by Christophe Manet, head of Political Affairs of the European Commission delegation to India and consisted of members from Spain, Hungary, Poland, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Finland and Sweden. A delegation from five European countries had visited Orissa earlier in November 2009, but the government of Orissa denied them permission to visit Kandhamal district, where Christians say they continue to be threatened and destitute.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath said on Saturday (Feb. 6) that despite the claims of the state and district administrations, life for the Christian victims of violence in August-September 2008 remains far from normal: thousands still live in makeshift shanties along roadsides and in forests, he said, and local officials and police harass them daily.

“The block officers have been playing with the facts, indulging in corrupt practices and cosmetic exercises whenever political and other dignitaries come to visit or inspect,” the archbishop said in a statement. “Innocent people are coerced into giving a false picture. The chief minister must investigate the role and functioning of the entire district administration . . . It is strange that officers in whose presence the violence took place and thousands of houses were burnt are still in office and are declaring that there is peace in the district.”

Following attacks in the area after Hindu extremists stirred up mobs by falsely accusing Christians of killing Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008, more than 10,000 families were displaced from their homes by the violence. Since then, Cheenath said, an estimated 1,200 families have left the area. Between 200 and 300 families reside in private displacement camps in the district, and more than 4,400 families still live in tents, makeshift shelters or the remnants of their damaged houses, he said.

The number of attack victims who have received financial assistance from the government, churches or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) is unknown, but is estimated at 1,100 families, Cheenath added.

He criticized Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Chief Minister of Orissa Naveen Patnaik saying, “Both of them had promised to provide adequate compensation for the damages caused during the 2008 communal violence. But the victims have not been adequately compensated.”

Cheenath said the state government had decided not to compensate any riot-affected religious institutions even though India’s Supreme Court had directed the government to compensate them for all damages.

“This is a national calamity and demands a special package for the affected people, which should include land, income generation, education and healthcare,” the archbishop said.

Extremist Makeover

Prior to the visit, Christian leaders expressed their shock at Kandhamal district authorities attempting a cosmetic makeover by evacuating nearly 100 Christians from G. Udayagiri.

In letters to the EU delegation, the state government and national human rights and minorities commissions, Dr. John Dayal of the All India Christian Council narrated the plight of the 91 members of 21 families from 11 villages who were living under plastic sheets along a road in the marketplace area of G. Udayagiri.

Dayal said the group included 11 married women, three widows, an elderly man with a fractured hip and thigh, and two infants born in the camp. They had faced almost daily threats, he said, as they had not been allowed to return to their villages unless they renounced their faith and became Hindus.

Soon after the decision to allow the EU delegation, the water supply to the makeshift site was cut off and police and civil officers drove away the residents, who had only plastic sheets to protect them from the cold, he said. The refugees said officers later gave them permission to come back at night but to keep the area clear.

“The families are in G. Udayagiri, they have moved in front of the road, and they are in a very bad state,” the Rev. Samant Nayak of G. Udayagiri told Compass. “They are literally on the road.”

He said that approximately 55 families were living in G. Udayagiri, where they had been given land, and a Christian NGO was helping to construct houses for them.

The Press Trust of India reported that Orissa officials were nervous about last week’s delegation visiting Kandhamal but finally gave permission under pressure from the central government. State officials finally allowed the visit with the pre-condition that the delegation would be allowed only to interact with people and not engage in fact-finding, according to a senior official in Orissa’s home department.

The Kandhamal district collector, Krishna Kumar, told Compass that all went well and “no untoward incidents took place,” but sources reported at least one minor disturbance in Bodimunda village. On Wednesday (Feb. 3), one house was reportedly damaged there in a scuffle that also resulted in two arrests by the local police.

During their Kandhamal visit, the EU delegation was reportedly forced to cancel a meeting with judges of Fast Track courts established in Phulbani, in Kandhamal district, to prosecute hundreds of those accused in the 2008 violence, due to protests from the local lawyers’ association.

Kumar, however, pointed out that the lawyers’ protest was secondary to the lack of clearance from the High court for the meeting with the judges. “The same was not informed to us prior to the visit,” he added.

Justice Denied

The anti-Christian violence in August-September 2008 killed over 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions. Archbishop Cheenath said justice is critical to long term peace.

“The two Fast Track courts, and the court premises, have seen a travesty of justice,” he said in the Feb. 6 statement. “Witnesses are being coerced, threatened, cajoled and sought to be bribed by murderers and arsonists facing trial. The court premises are full of top activists of fundamentalist organizations. The witnesses are also threatened in their homes with elimination, and even their distant relatives are being coerced specially in the murder and arson cases against Member of Legislative Assembly [MLA] Manoj Pradhan.”

Though some witnesses have testified on Pradhan’s alleged involvement in crimes in depositions, he has been acquitted in case after case, the archbishop added.

“We are demanding a special investigation team to investigate every case of murder and arson,” he said. “Similarly, there is also need for transferring the cases against politically powerful persons such as Pradhan to outside Kandhamal, preferably to Cuttack or Bhubaneswar.”

Cheenath said victims have filed 3,232 complaints at Kandhamal police stations, but officers registered only 832 cases. As many as 341 cases were in the G. Udayagiri area alone, 98 in Tikabali and 90 in Raikia, he said.

“Even out of this small number [in G. Udayagiri], only 123 cases were transferred to the two Fast Track courts,” he said. “So far, 71 cases have been tried in the two courts, and 63 cases have been disposed of. Of these, conviction occurred only in 25 cases, and even that is partial as most of the accused have not been arrested or brought to trial.”

Only 89 persons have been convicted so far in Orissa state, while 251 have been acquitted, supposedly for lack of witnesses against them, he said.

“Among them is Manoj Pradhan,” Cheenath said. “It is strange that in the case of 10 deaths by murder, nine cases have been closed without anybody being convicted, while there has been partial conviction in the case of one death. Who will bring justice in the case of the nine murder cases?”

The archbishop demanded that independent lawyers be allowed to assist overworked special public prosecutors.

Hindu Nationalist Protests

Protesting the delegation visit was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and other Hindu nationalist organizations. VHP State General Secretary Gouri Prasad Brahma had lamented on Jan. 31 that the visit would trigger tension and demanded their immediate withdrawal.

“There is no business of the outsiders in the internal matter of the state,” he said.

The delegation also faced the ire of the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal on the day of its arrival in Bhubaneswar, capital of Orissa, on Tuesday (Feb. 2). Hundreds of its cadres met the delegation at the airport shouting loudly, “EU team, go back.”

Five Bajrang Dal members were detained for creating trouble, Deputy Commissioner of Police H.K. Lal told media on Wednesday (Feb. 3).

After the delegation had left, the Orissa Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) heavily criticized the central and the state governments, with BJP state President, Jual Oram telling a press conference that the state had allowed the visit to “divide people on communal lines.” He said that the delegation had not met any Hindu leader during their visit to Kandhamal, which “exposed their communal agenda.”

Oram accused the delegation of violating protocol in trying to meet the judges of fast-track courts in Kandhamal, saying this “amounted to interference into internal affairs of a sovereign independent member state under the U.N.”

At the same press conference, BJP MLA Karendra Majhi said that allowing the visit was an attempt by the chief minister to win back the confidence of minority Christians. He alleged that the delegation had held secret meetings in a Catholic church at Phulbani with church leaders and select NGOs to facilitate conversions to Christianity.

“I have every reason to believe that the promised assistance of 15 million euros to Kandhamal by the EU delegation will be utilized for conversion activities,” Majhi said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christians Concerned over Acquittals in Orissa, India Violence

Lax investigation, prosecution, lack of witness protection cited as reasons for injustice.

NEW DELHI, September 30 (CDN) — Only 24 people have been convicted a year after anti-Christian mayhem took place in India’s Orissa state, while the number of acquittals has risen to 95, compounding the sense of helplessness and frustration among surviving Christians.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, called the trials “a travesty of justice.”

Last month a non-profit group, the Peoples Initiative for Justice and Peace (PIJP), reportedly found that as many as 2,500 complaints were filed with police following the violence in August-September 2008 in the eastern state’s Kandhamal district. The violence killed at least 100 people and burned more than 4,500 houses and over 250 churches and 13 educational institutions. It also rendered 50,000 people, mostly Christian, homeless.

Police, however, registered only 827 complaints and arrested fewer than 700 people, even though 11,000 people were named as attackers in those complaints, according to a PIJP survey.

“The manner of the judicial processes in the Kandhamal fast-track courts is tragic where all too many people have managed to escape conviction for crimes as serious as conspiracy for brutal, premeditated murder and deliberate arson,” Dayal told Compass.

Among those acquitted was Manoj Pradhan, who allegedly led mobs that killed Christians and burned their houses a few months before he became a state legislator from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Facing charges in five cases of murder and six of arson, Pradhan has been acquitted in three cases.

On Thursday (Sept. 24), the judge of Fast Track Court-II, C.R. Das, acquitted Pradhan and another suspect, Mantu Nayak, on charges of killing Khageswar Digal for refusing to “reconvert” to Hinduism, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI). Digal was a 60-year-old Catholic and resident of Shankarakhol area in Chakapada Block in Kandhamal.

“The court acquitted the BJP MLA [Member of Legislative Assembly] and Nayak due to lack of proper evidence against them,” Special Public Prosecutor Pratap Patra told PTI.

The Rev. Ajay Singh, an activist from the Catholic Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, said Digal’s son testified in court that he was witness to the killing of his father and knew the killers, and yet the accused were acquitted.

“It was a brutal murder, possibly a case of human sacrifice,” Singh said.

Digal was dragged from a vehicle before being killed on Sept. 24 last year – one month after the assassination of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati by Maoists (extreme Marxists), which triggered the violence as Hindu extremists wrongly blamed Christians.

Singh spoke to the son of the deceased Digal, Rajendra Digal, who said his parents left their village after the violence and took shelter in the state capital, Bhubaneswar.

The elder Digal, who owned a grocery shop and 35 goats, returned to his village to see his house and livestock. After selling some of the goats, he boarded a public bus to Phulbani, Kandhamal district headquarters, to start his journey back to Bhubaneswar around noon on Sept. 24. As the bus started, however, some assailants allegedly led by Pradhan stopped the bus and dragged Digal out. They also broke his leg.

The attackers were said to have taken Digal to his village, where they looted his shop. Then they allegedly took him and eight of his goats to a nearby forest, where they feasted on the goat meat throughout the night.

When Rajendra Digal heard about it, he informed police, who allegedly took no interest in the complaint. Twelve days later, his father’s body, naked and burned with acid, was found 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the village. His genitals had also been chopped off.

Rajendra Digal said he believes his father may have been the victim of human sacrifice involving ritual feasting and torture.

Shoddy Probe, Lack of Evidence

A representative of the Christian Legal Association (CLA) said the police had been conducting investigations improperly.

The CLA source pointed out that in another Fast-Track Court-I case in which Pradhan was one of the accused, police had wrongly recorded the age of the informant, Bhutia Digal.

“The court observed that if the police could not cite the age of the informant correctly, how could they have investigated the case properly?” said the source, adding that such discrepancies were found in far too many cases.

During the violence in August-September 2008, the BJP was part of the ruling coalition with a local party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). The latter recently broke ties with the Hindu nationalist BJP, blaming it for violence in March, a month before the state assembly election.

The BJP lost the April-May election, and the BJD emerged as the stand-alone ruling party. It is believed that the state administration began taking action against the assailants only after the coalition split in March – six months too late, which possibly provided enough time for suspects to remove evidence and threaten witnesses.

Witnesses are still being threatened or bribed, according to rights groups.

On Thursday (Sept. 24), the day the BJP legislator was acquitted, the fast-track court also released five others accused of arson in the Tikabali area of Kandhamal in a separate case, reported the PTI.

Singh said the witnesses were either intimidated or bribed and therefore turned hostile to prosecutors in court. Friends of the accused took the witnesses to the court in their vehicle, he pointed out.

Dayal said the Orissa High Court should have taken notice of the increasing number of acquittals.

“A man now an MLA seems to be beyond the law,” he said. “I would demand a high-powered judicial review by the High Court of Orissa itself, or failing that, by civil society, which should set up an independent commission of retired judges and senior lawyers.”

Singh said police investigations and prosecutions were a “sham.” There is also “a pressing need for witness protection,” he said.

He added that there were reports of witnesses being intimidated and threatened in various villages, such as Dodingia, K. Nuagam, Phiringia and Solesoru. “Police are not entertaining complaints of the threat to the witnesses,” Singh said.

Dayal highlighted three essential problems: The quality of the charge-sheets prepared by police; the role of the public prosecutor in pressing the charges as prepared by police; and the circumstances under which eyewitnesses, “often sons and daughters of those killed, cannot attest to the truth or are forced into silence,” he said.

“India does not have a witness-protection program, and surely Kandhamal has none at all,” Dayal said. “Witnesses have to pass through an aggressive environment which affectively silences them. They are human beings and fear future violence, having seen brutal violence in the past.”

Singh and Dayal demanded that the cases be heard outside Kandhamal, preferably outside Orissa state.


First Life Sentences Handed Down for Orissa, India Killing

NEW DELHI, September 30 (Compass Direct News) – A fast-track court in Orissa state on Sept. 23 delivered its first life sentences for those convicted of murder in 2008 violence in Kandhamal district, sentencing five people to life imprisonment for their involvement in the killing of Pastor Akbar Digal.

Digal, 40, pastor of a Baptist church in Tatamaha village under Raikia police jurisdiction in Kandhamal district, was killed on Aug. 26, 2008 after refusing the slayers’ demand that he forsake Christianity and convert to Hinduism. His body was reportedly cut to pieces and then burned.

He is survived by his wife, Ludhia Digal, and five children.

Additional Sessions Judge Sobhan Kumar Das of Fast Track Court-I at Phulbani district headquarters sentenced Sabita Pradhan, 30; Papu Pradhan, 30; Abinash Pradhan, 29; Dharmaraj Pradhan, 32; and Mania Pradhan, 28, to life in prison and a fine of 5,000 rupees (US$104). The five were arrested after Pastor Digal’s wife filed a First Information Report on Aug. 29, 2008.

Previous to these sentences, two fast-track courts had sentenced 12 people to prison for terms ranging only from four to six years. The government set up the two fast-track courts to try nearly 900 cases related to anti-Christian violence that erupted in August 2008. The first conviction was determined on June 30.

The special Phulbani court also sentenced six others to three years’ rigorous imprisonment on Sept. 22 for an arson attack on a journalist’s house in Kandhamal’s Phiringia village on Dec. 12, 2007.

Police had arrested 11 people in this case, but the court acquitted five for “lack of evidence.” Convicted were Ganpati Kanhar, Rabindra Kanhar, Parmeshwar Kanhar, Daleswar Kanhar, Tuba Kanhar and Vijay Kanhar, whose ages range from 25 to 40 years. They were also fined 4,000 rupees (US$83) each.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Provincial official claims local authorities “misunderstood” religious freedom regulations.

DUBLIN, September 18 (Compass Direct News) – Confronted with evidence of rights abuses yesterday, an official in Champasak province, Laos, said district officials had “misunderstood” religious freedom regulations when they arrested and detained two men for converting to Christianity, according to Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF).

District police officers in cooperation with the chief of Jick village in Phonthong district arrested Khambarn Kuakham and Phoun Koonlamit on Sept. 8, accusing them of “believing in Christianity, a foreign religion,” HRWLRF reported.

Both men were placed in criminal detention for five days and ordered to renounce their faith, the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) confirmed.

Officials warned Kuakham that he had violated the terms of his employment by having contact with Christians and converting to the Christian faith. He must renounce his faith in order to return to his teaching position, they said. If he refused, he would face a lengthy detention.

When challenged by local Christians, the head of Champasak province’s National Front for Reconstruction – a religious affairs body – claimed that according to a government decree issued in 2002 the men should have sought prior approval to convert. The Decree on Management and Protection of Religious Activities states that if there were no Christians in a village prior to the Communist takeover in 1975, potential converts in the village or town must seek permission to convert to Christianity.

Local Christians argued that since Kuakham attended worship services in another village with an existing Christian presence, he had not violated the decree.

They also pointed to Article 3 of the same decree, which states that “all Lao citizens are equal before the law in believing or not believing religions as provided by the Constitution and laws of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.”

The official then said district authorities had “misunderstood” the situation, and that he would caution them to respect the believers’ freedom to worship.

Still, the men were released after five days with the understanding that if they continued to practice their faith, then they would be arrested and detained again. At press time, Kuakham was back in his teaching position and had no intention of renouncing his faith.


Christians Held in Stocks

In Boukham village, Savannakhet, three Christians remain in detention for their faith, HRWLRF reported yesterday. Officials have kept pastor Sompong Supatto, 32, Boot Chanthaleuxay, 18, and Khamvan Chanthaleuxay, 18, in handcuffs and foot stocks since their arrest on Aug. 3, causing considerable pain.

Released from the stocks only for toilet breaks, both Boot Chanthaleuxay and Khamvan Chanthaleuxay were suffering from loss of feeling and infection in their legs and feet due to lack of blood circulation.

Supatto, who had been nursing a sick family member before he was detained, learned last week that the family member had died. Despite hardships caused to the family, both Supatto and his wife are adamant that they will not forsake Christianity.

Authorities have said they will release the men only if they renounce their faith.


Livestock Seized

Several sources have confirmed that authorities are still targeting Tah Oih tribal Christians in Saravan province.

On Sept. 8, provincial and district authorities held a meeting in Katin village, claiming the Lao central government had ordered them to do so in response to international inquiries about religious freedom abuses in the village. Officials talked to leaders and residents about the 2002 decree and asked all parties to respect the religious laws of the nation, HRWLRF reported on Tuesday (Sept. 16).

They also cautioned Christians that their right to faith would stand only if they cooperated with village activities and if they were not bribed or paid to believe in Christianity.

On Friday (Sept. 12), however, village authorities seized a buffalo belonging to a Christian villager identified only as Bounchu and informed him that the animal would only be returned if he renounced his faith. The buffalo, worth about US$350 and vital for agricultural activity, was a prized family asset.

When Bounchu refused, officials on Saturday (Sept. 13) slaughtered the buffalo in the village square and distributed the meat to all non-Christian families in the village. They also warned all Christian residents that they would continue to take possession of their livestock until they renounced their faith.

Residents of Katin village had earlier killed a Christian villager on July 21. Officials arrested a total of 80 Christians on July 25 and detained them in a local school compound, denying them food for three days in an attempt to force the adults to sign documents renouncing their faith. (See Compass Direct News, “Authorities Arrest 90 Christians in Three Lao Provinces,” Aug. 8.)


More Intervention

Several aspects of the 2002 decree need to be addressed, a spokesman from HRWLRF told Compass today.

“From this and other incidents of persecution in Saravan and Savannakhet provinces, it appears that district and local authorities have been misinterpreting the decree, either intentionally or in ignorance,” he said.

International advocacy efforts were helpful in addressing these issues, he added. For example in Champasak, there was some evidence that provincial officials were embarrassed by negative publicity generated over the arrest of Kuakham and Koonlamit.

The LMHR issued a press release on Sept. 10 pointing to an upsurge in arrests and religious freedom abuses in Laos and calling for intervention from international governments and Non-Governmental Organizations.

Report from Compass Direct News