Violent Death of Girl in Pakistan Spurs Push for Justice

Rare protest by family of tortured child puts spotlight on abuse of Christian working poor.

LAHORE, Pakistan, January 28 (CDN) — A daring protest and a high-profile funeral here on Monday (Jan. 25) for a 12-year-old Christian girl who died from torture and malnourishment has cast a rare spotlight on abuse of the Christian poor in Pakistan.

In an uncommon challenge in the predominantly Muslim nation, the Christian parents of Shazia Bashir Masih protested police unresponsiveness to the alleged violence against their daughter by Muslim attorney Chaudhary Muhammad Naeem and his family and his attempt to buy their silence after her death. The house servant died on Friday (Jan. 22) after working eight months in Naeem’s house.

An initial medical report indicated she died gradually from blows from a blunt instrument, wounds from a sharp-edged weapon, misuse of medicines and malnourishment. Key media highlighted the case on Pakistan’s airwaves, and minority rights groups along with high-ranking Christian politicians have swooped in to help.

Initially police were unresponsive to the family’s efforts to file charges against Muslim attorney Naeem, and on Saturday (Jan. 23) they staged a protest in front of the Punjab Assembly. The power of Naeem, a former president of the Lahore Bar Association, was such that officers at Litton Road police station refused to listen to Shazia’s relatives when they tried to file a complaint to retrieve her three months ago, telling the girl’s relatives, “a case against a lawyer cannot be registered,” her uncle Rafiq Masih told Compass.

Her mother, Nasreen Bibi, told Compass Naeem came to their home on the day Shazia died and offered 30,000 rupees (US$350) to keep the death secret and to pay for burial expenses.

“I refused to accept their offer, and they went they went away hurling death threats,” she said.

Bibi, a widow who subsequently married a 70-year-old blind man, told Compass that hunger and poverty had forced her to send her daughter to work at Naeem’s house for 1,000 rupees per month (US$12) – the family’s only source of income. Two older daughters are married, and she still cares for a 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son living at home.

Rafiq Masih said Naeem illegally kept Shazia at his house, forced her to work long hours and summarily refused family requests to see her. Three months ago, Masih said, Naeem allowed him and Shazia’s mother to see her for five minutes, and the girl complained that Naeem and his son were raping her. Shazia also told them that Naeem, his wife and sister-in-law were beating her and threatening to harm her if she tried to escape.

Enraged, Naeem promptly asked him and Shazia’s mother to leave, Masih said.

“We tried to bring Shazia with us back home,” he said, “but Naeem flatly refused to let Shazia go, and he cruelly and inhumanely grabbed her hair and dragged her inside the house. He returned to threaten us with dire consequences if we tried to file a case against him for keeping Shazia at his home as a bonded laborer.”

Masih and Bibi then went to the Litton Road police station to try to get Naeem to release Shazia, and it was then that duty officers deliberately offered the misinformation that a case could not be made against a lawyer, they said.

A Muslim neighbor of Naeem, Shaukat Ali Agha, told Compass that Naeem tortured Shazia.

“Often that little girl’s cries for mercy could be heard from the residence of the lawyer during the dead of night,” Agha said. “And whenever Shazia requested some food, she got thrashed badly by his wife, son and sister-in-law. One day Shazia was viciously beaten when, forced by starvation, she could not resist picking up a small piece of sugar cane from the lawn of Naeem’s residence to chew.”

As Shazia’s condition deteriorated, Naeem released her to the family and they took her to Jinnah Hospital Lahore on Jan. 19. After fighting for her life there for three days, she succumbed to her injuries and critically malnourished condition, her mother said.

Doctors at the hospital told Compass they found 18 wounds on her body: 13 from a blunt instrument, and five from a “sharp-edged weapon.”

A high-ranking investigating official told Compass that Naeem had given contrary statements under questioning. The police official said that Naeem initially stated that Shazia had fallen down some stairs and died. The police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Naeem quickly changed his statement, saying she had stolen food from the refrigerator and therefore was beaten. The official added that Naeem also said Shazia was insane, disobedient and stubborn, and “therefore she had gotten thrashed and died.”

Doctors at Mayo Hospital Morgue have taken blood and tissue samples from Shazia’s liver, stomach and kidneys and sent them to the Chief Chemical Examiner’s Forensic Lab in Islamabad to determine the official causes of death, officials said.

Family Beaten in Court

On Saturday (Jan. 23) Shazia’s family, along with many other Christians and Muslims, protested outside the Punjab Assembly for three hours, according to rights groups. Key television channels covered police inaction in the face of the violent death, and several high-profile politicians pledged their support, including Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. He promised to give the family 500,000 rupees (US$5,835) after Pakistani Minister of Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti announced a gift of the same amount to compensate the family.

Only after this public pressure did police file a First Information Report, and Naeem and six others, including family members, were arrested earlier this week. Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif reportedly visited the family, promising justice.

The Lahore High Court took up the case on Tuesday (Jan. 26) and ordered police to conclude investigations within 14 days, but none of the high-level action seemed to matter at a hearing that day at District and Sessions Court Lahore, at which Naeem and his accusers were present. As routinely happens in cases where Christians in Pakistan accuse Muslims of wrongdoing, Compass observed as Naeem’s lawyers chanted slogans against Shazia’s family, threatened them and beat them – including Bibi and her blind husband – driving them from the courtroom.

Compass witnessed the Muslim attorneys yelling chants against local media and Christianity, as well. Naeem was neither handcuffed nor escorted by Defense A-Division Police, though he has been charged with murder.

At Shazia’s funeral on Monday at Sacred Heart Cathedral Church, Bishop of Lahore Diocese the Rt. Rev. Alexander John Malik officiated as eminent Christian politicians, human rights activists, Christian clergymen and many others gathered to pay their respects amid heavy police contingents.

After the funeral, her body was taken to her home in the Sammanabad slum of Arriya Nagar, where a throng of neighbors and Christian mourners gathered, chanting for justice. Shazia’s coffin was then taken to Miani Sahib Christian Cemetery, where she was buried amid cries and tears.

Present at the burial ceremonies were Provincial Minister of Punjab for Minorities Affairs Kamran Michael, Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Bhatti, Christian members of Punjab Parliament Tahir Naveed Chaudhary and Khalil Tahir Sindhu, Bishop Albert Javed, Bishop Samuel Azariah, National Director of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement Joseph Francis and other Christian leaders.

In a joint statement issued that day in Lahore, Catholic Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha and Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the National Council for Justice and Peace, said that Shazia’s death was not an isolated incident, but that violence against the more than 10 million child laborers in the country is commonplace.

Report from Compass Direct News 


After nearly two and half years in jail, elderly men’s 10-year sentences overturned.

ISTANBUL, April 21 (Compass Direct News) – After more than two years in a Pakistani jail, two elderly Christian men convicted of “blasphemy” against the Quran were acquitted on Thursday (April 16) when a high court in Lahore overturned their 10-year sentence.

James Masih, 67, and Buta Masih, 72, were accused of burning pages from the Quran in October 2006 and were also tried under an anti-terrorism law because their actions were deemed to have created fear and panic. In a case that drew crowds of Islamic fanatics, they were convicted on Nov. 25, 2006 of blaspheming Islam’s sacred book.

The pair has claimed from the start that the blasphemy charges were fabricated due to a dispute over a plot of land that a Muslim neighbor wanted James Masih to sell.

“It happens many times, it is always a false story due to some other enmity,” said Father Yaqub Yousaf, the men’s parish priest. “Pastors and priests, we tell them that it is better not to speak on religion with the Muslims, not to say anything that can hurt them, so normally they don’t do that.”

After rumors erupted that the two men had burned pages of the Quran on Oct. 8, 2006, some 500 Muslims attempted to kill them. Police arrested the two Christians and held off the crowds, which stayed outside the police station through the night.

The Christian men launched an appeal soon after their conviction and have since remained in prison.

“I appeared in court 27 times during the appeal,” said Khalil Tahir Sindhu, their lawyer. “Most of the time the judges postponed the case, saying, ‘We will hear the case next time.’”

Sindhu told Compass that religious bias and public pressure led to the judge’s original decision to sentence the men and could have had much to do with the delays in hearing the appeal.

“At the last hearing [Dec. 15, 2008], the judge reserved judgment, which according to law has to be given within three months,” he said. “But it was over three months, so I went to court and told him, ‘These are old men and they are sick, so please announce the judgment.’”

James Masih was hospitalized three times during his internment, receiving treatment for a chest infection.

“Jail is totally different [in Pakistan], you hardly have proper food, and no facilities,” said Fr. Yousaf. Sources said both men were traumatized by their ordeal, an effect also felt keenly by their families, who were rarely able to visit.


Permanent Stigma

Articles 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code respectively prescribe life imprisonment for desecrating the Quran and death for insulting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

Although the law has not been implemented to the full extent of capital punishment or life in prison since its introduction in 1986, there have been more than 20 deaths recorded in blasphemy-related violence.

Even after their acquittal and release, Sindhu said, the men will not be able to immediately return home.

“It is dangerous now, we will not send them to their home,” said Sindhu. “We will keep them away for one to two months until the situation changes. Anyone can kill them.”

Christians previously accused of blasphemy continued to experience prejudice and sometimes violence even after being cleared of the charges.

“It is difficult for the blasphemy accused to find work,” commented Wasim Muntizar from the Lahore-based Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement. “Churches are afraid to help them, because fanatics won’t hesitate to kill the ‘blasphemer’ and attack the church.”

Although the families of James and Buta Masih remain excited at the prospect of the pair’s upcoming return home, Fr. Yousaf has urged them to keep their celebrations muted.

“They are excited, yes, but I told them not to express so strongly their joy about it,” he said. “I requested them to keep it secret, because it may not be safe – some of the Muslims may say the court has not taken the right decision. In the past people have been killed after being acquitted.”

Report from Compass Direct News