PAKISTAN: ISLAMIC RADICALS STORM ‘BLASPHEMY’ HEARING


Christian couple on trial; member of prosecution team threatens to kill wife.

ISTANBUL, May 29 (Compass Direct News) – Radical Pakistani Muslims in a town outside of Lahore this month overran a courtroom in hopes of swaying a judge in a “blasphemy” case against a Christian couple, and a member of the prosecution later threatened to kill the wife.

Some 50 molvis (Muslim clergy) on May 14 burst into the courtroom in Mustafabad, where a bail hearing was taking place in the case against Munir Masih and his wife Ruqiya Bibi, according to the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).

“Nobody could stop them as they rushed into the court,” said CLAAS’s Tahir Gull, sole representative for the accused. “They said, ‘No non-Muslim has the right to keep a Quran in his house, they have done this so they are liable to be punished.’”

Masih and Bibi, both in their 30s, were originally accused under section 295-B of Pakistan’s penal code with defiling the Quran by touching it with unwashed hands on Dec. 8 of last year. Masih was taken to prison and remained there until Jan. 22, when a Muslim neighbor who had asked him to store some of his possessions, including his Quran, testified on his behalf and the case was dropped.

The complainant, Mohammad Nawaz, subsequently filed another accusation on Feb. 12, this time under 295-C, blasphemy against Muhammad, Islam’s prophet. This charge carries a death sentence, whereas defiling the Quran calls for life imprisonment.

Despite pressure from the crowd of clerics, Judge Shafqat Ali – also a molvi – granted the couple bail. Following the hearing, however, a member of the prosecution team approached Bibi outside the courtroom and threatened to kill her.

“Ruqiya was waiting outside the court,” said Gull, “and one man came and said, ‘Whatever the decision, we will kill you.’”

A prosecution lawyer read portions of the Quran while presenting his case, he added.

“He was not explaining the law in which the accused were charged,” said Gull. “He was trying to influence the court religiously.”

Charges of blasphemy are common in Pakistan and particularly incendiary, often leading to strong shows of religious zeal. It is not uncommon for sections 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistani penal code to be invoked in retaliation for personal grievances.

“It is very easy to grab any person for religious reasons,” said Parvez Choudhry, chairman of Legal Aid for the Destitute and Settlement, who specialize in blasphemy cases. “There are many personal cases involving property, or money, or business that motivate the complainant against the accused person. All the cases are falsely charged.”

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have come under heavy fire from international rights groups. Any private citizen can file blasphemy charges, destroying reputation and livelihood. The charge can possibly lead to the death penalty in the conservative Islamic country.

Masih, who before his initial arrest had been a day laborer, is no longer able to find work due to the stigma of the blasphemy accusation.

“There is a need to repeal these sections [295-B and 295-C],” said Choudhry. “This is considered a draconian law.”

Section 295-C carries a death sentence for anyone found “by words or visible representation or by an imputation or insinuation, directly or indirectly, [to have] defiled the name of the Muhammad of Islam.”

Choudhry suggested that just correcting the vagueness of this definition would go a long way toward reducing its frequent misuse.

“The word ‘indirect’ should be repealed – this is wrong, unconstitutional,” he said. “They have no value in the Evidence Act of Pakistan. The Evidence Act states that there needs to be direct evidence for a conviction.”

The next court date has not yet been assigned, but Gull said he is confident about securing an acquittal.

“We have a good case on our side,” he told Compass. “I am very optimistic.”

Report from Compass Direct News

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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