PAKISTAN: CHRISTIANS ACQUITTED IN ‘BLASPHEMY’ CASE


Religious reconciliation meetings produce first such acquittal as imams issue fatwa.

ISTANBUL, January 23 (Compass Direct News) – Five Christians charged with “blasphemy” against Islam during April 2007 religious holidays were released on Monday (Jan. 19) after reconciliation meetings between Christian and Islamic leaders – the first verdict to have resulted from such efforts in Pakistan.

A Punjab court released Salamat Masih, 42, his 16-year-old son Rashid, and their relatives Ishfaq, Saba and Dao Masih after a judge acquitted them. Their acquittal and release came through out-of-court meetings between Muslim leaders and a Christian Non-Governmental Organization.

“This is a wonderful sign that has made history,” said Shahzad Kamran, a case worker for Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan (SLMP), which negotiated with the Muslim leaders. “This case can set a precedent for future blasphemy cases against Christians.”

The reconciliation meetings between SLMP and local and national imams began last November. Rather than attempt to settle the matter in court, the legal advocacy group sought out Muslim leaders directly to persuade them that the accused were innocent; the Islamic clerics then compelled area Muslims to drop their charges.

The meetings took place between four Islamic clergymen, National Assembly Representative Mushtaq Ahmed and Sohail Johnson of the SLMP. Ahmed was unavailable for comment in spite of repeated attempts to contact him.

Johnson of SLMP took precautionary measures to keep from being exposed to violence, meeting with the imams in neutral locations away from mosques and Muslim parts of the city. The SLMP team managed to convince the Islamic clerics to release the Christians by persuading them that the alleged blasphemy grew from a misunderstanding.

“There is permission granted in Islamic law that if someone unintentionally commits an offense, it can be reconciled,” Johnson said. “[The cleric] said he would do it because he did not want to bring harm and injustice to the community.”

The Islamic clergymen agreed to issue a fatwa (religious edict) declaring the accused men innocent of blasphemy. The Muslim witnesses in the case withdrew their testimony on Jan. 13, and District Judge Sheik Salahudin acquitted the five men in a Toba Tek Singh court.

The legal advocates involved in the case said they would employ reconciliation in future cases of false blasphemy charges. They said that battling such cases in court can still free innocent people, but it does not help to solve sectarian strife that leads to violence and false charges.

But with reconciliation meetings, “the word of God has affected the hearts of the Muslims and changed their behavior,” Johnson said. “With our good behavior we can change the people.”

The SLMP’s Kamran said the imams declared the defendants innocent because they knew the men did not intentionally insult the Islamic religion. The situation likely escalated because it took place during an Islamic holiday, with the April 2007 Muslim celebration of Eid-e-Millad-ul-Nabi (Muhammad’s birthday) turning into mob violence after the spread of false rumors against Christians. Local Christian Ratan Masih was severely injured. Other Christians fled for fear of their lives, according to SLMP.

Approximately 2,000 Muslims attacked Christian Colony, a Christian neighborhood, stoning houses and torturing Christians, according to an SLMP report. Initially the mob violence began over a quarrel between Rashid Masih’s younger brother Daniel, 12, and a Muslim child named Sunny. In the course of the argument, a sticker fell off Sunny’s shirt that bore the words Yah Rasool Allah, a reference to Muhammad as God’s messenger.

A local resident, Mohammed Farsal, saw the sticker on the ground and accused the Christian children of blasphemy. Violence soon broke out, and police eventually arrested all five men on charges of insulting Islam.

Blasphemy charges against non-Muslims are not uncommon in Pakistan and are typically applied in cases of sectarian violence. Islamic leaders are often under community pressure to blame Christians in these situations.

Human rights lawyers hope this case sets a precedent for future blasphemy cases, with spurious charges of insulting Islam or its prophet becoming more difficult to press.

Other legal cases of blasphemy continue in Pakistan, including the arrest of Munir Masih and his wife Ruqiya Bibi for insulting Islam. They were granted bail yesterday in Kasur.

At the hearing, 20 local Muslims pressured the judge not to grant them bail, according to a report from the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement.

On Wednesday (Jan. 21), Hector Aleem from Islamabad was falsely accused of blasphemy, most likely as a backlash to his role as a human rights activist, the report said.

Christian lawmakers in the Muslim-majority country of 170 million hope to curb these legal abuses by abolishing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.  

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: ELDERLY CHRISTIAN KILLED IN AXE MURDER


Suspects haven’t been charged; politicians shielding them from prosecution.

ISTANBUL, September 4 (Compass Direct News) – Four Pakistani Muslims killed an elderly woman with an axe over a dispute with her husband, who has been unable to prosecute them due to his low social status as a Christian.

Case workers said the alleged culprits targeted the couple for theft and later murder because they believed Pakistan’s legal system would not prosecute them for murdering Christians. The suspects’ connections to mafia and national politicians further emboldened them, they said.

“The Muslims assume the Christians are sheep and don’t have any weight,” said Sohail Johnson, case worker and chief coordinator of Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan (SLMP), a Non-Governmental Organization that supports Christian prisoners throughout the Punjab province. “The culprits thought, ‘[The Christians] have no voice. Nothing will happen if we do something,’” he said.

Noban Bibi, 65, was killed on July 2 in Pakistan’s eastern Kasur province in the village of Khraper.

The dispute that led to her murder started in January, when two men stole money and gold items from the couple.

According to a First Instance Report, Yaqoob Shareef and Hadayat Ali broke into the house of Dara Masih, 85, while his wife was away in Lahore. They stole gold ornaments and 15,000 Pakistan rupees (US$200).

Masih demanded they return the stolen goods or he would prosecute them. The alleged culprits then began threatening to kill him.

On July 2 at 2:30 a.m. Shareef, Ali, and two unknown persons entered their house and killed Bibi with a pickaxe.

An autopsy obtained by Compass said Bibi had multiple lacerations on her head, some nearly four inches long.

Johnson of SLMP said the alleged culprits believed they wouldn’t be prosecuted due to their connections to politicians and mafia.

Shareef, 36, and Ali, in his late 20s, are members of a criminal organization and have connections with local and national politicians that they are using to leverage the criminal justice system, said Shazhad Kamran, an SLMP case worker.

“In Pakistan, politicians always need criminals to assert their power in an area,” Kamran said. “They always depend on criminals, and criminals depend on politicians to save them.”

 

Bribery and ‘Dissimulation’

Masih nevertheless registered the murder with the local police. He could not convince local police officer Muhammad Akram to arrest Shareef and Ali, according to an SLMP report, because Akram received a bribe requiring him to threaten Masih to drop charges against them.

Masih then took the case to a district police officer in Kasur, who arrested Ali and Sharif. The two suspects, however, have not been formally prosecuted.

When the SLMP’s Johnson and Kamran approached Sub-Inspector Aslam Pistooly and Investigation Officer Malik Mansab Ali on Aug. 2, Pistooly claimed the two suspects were not guilty. To prove this, he said the accused would swear an oath of innocence in front of prominent Muslims at a mosque, the report said.

Johnson and Kamran refused the offer for the suspects to do so, stating that swearing an oath at a mosque is not a part of Pakistani criminal investigation proceedings.

Pistooly then became angry and told Johnson and Kamran, “If you are not satisfied that Muslims will go into the mosque and swear they are innocent, then if you can go into the church, put your hand on the Bible, and swear they are guilty, then I will make legal action against him,” according to Johnson.

Speaking by telephone from Kasum, Investigation Officer Ali, who was at the Aug. 2 meeting, said swearing an oath in a mosque as proof of innocence is illegal under Pakistani criminal law. Asked if Pistooly had asked the culprits to testify in a mosque, he told Compass he could not confirm it.

“I have not compelled any person to swear an oath in a mosque, and Pakistani law does not permit it,” he said through a translator.

The SLMP case workers said the Muslim suspects wanted to swear an oath at the mosque to take advantage of an Islamic tradition that allows accused men to give false testimony when under threat.

Known as Al Taqiyya (dissimulation), this concept allows Muslims to conceal the truth at a time of danger to save themselves from physical or mental injury. In some traditions, Al Taqiyya can only be used when one is wrongfully accused.

On Aug. 4 Punjab Minister for Human Rights and Minority Affairs Kamran Michael transferred the case from the district police office to the Karsur superintendent of police.

The SLMP case workers met with Kasur Superintendent of Police Rana Shahid Ahmed on Aug. 18. In their first meeting he was uncooperative and pressured Masih to drop all charges against the two suspects, the report said.

Johnson said he believes justice will not come easily for Masih because the case has become an issue of pride for local Muslims. Members of Parliament are supporting the alleged criminals and putting pressure on police to find them innocent, he said, “just to save the skin of Muslims.”

The SLMP is now trying to move the investigation to the Criminal Investigation Agency. It will first file a complaint in a lower criminal court against the alleged culprits and police for not registering the case.

Kasur is an agricultural city located in the Punjab province with a long Islamic history. The area contains radical conservative Muslim elements, such as members of Jamaat-Ud-Dawa, a Pakistani charity that the U.S. State Department designated a terrorist organization in 2006.

In recent years Christians in Kasur have faced charges of blasphemy against Islam, torture and forced conversion.

In July 2007 Catholic prisoner Dil Awaiz was tortured, barred from teaching Bible classes to fellow Christian prisoners and placed in solitary confinement. He was released in April this year.

Human Rights and Minority Affairs Minister Michael spoke to Christians in Kanganpur, 50 kilometers (31 miles) southeast of Kasur, on Friday (Aug. 29). He said the government was taking every step to protect minority rights, according to the Associated Press of Pakistan.  

Report from Compass Direct News