RISING RELIGIOUS INTOLERANCE SPARKS CUSTODIAL DEATH IN PAKISTAN
Ahmad Naeem Khan, OneWorld South Asia
The main thrust of the article below is related to the UA that AHRC sent a few days ago about the death in custody of Samuel Masih, who was accused of blasphemy in Pakistan. Reference is also made to another case on which we issued a UA - the murder of Irfan Khokhar. We also sent a UA on the case of Javed Anjum that is mentioned as well - the editor
LAHORE, May 31 (OneWorld) - The custodial death of a Christian accused of blasphemy in Pakistan last week has highlighted the harassment of religious minorities, who often face attacks from fanatics and apathy from authorities.
Samuel Masih was attacked with a brick cutter in a hospital in the eastern city of Lahore. Ironically, the assailant, police constable Fariad Ali, had been deputed to guard Masih when he was sent from prison to hospital for tuberculosis treatment.
Farid, who had told his colleagues about his hatred for Masih, has been arrested and charged with murder. Assures Senior Superintendent of Police for Investigation Chaudhry Shafqat Ahmad, "The prosecution will ask for the maximum sentence for the constable and the case will be sent to a court of law within two weeks."
Masih was imprisoned in August last year under section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) that deals with blasphemy. Many argue that the law is discriminatory and is often misused by Pakistanis to settle personal scores.
Charges of blasphemy are made against people from all faiths in Pakistan, where 96.28 percent of the 150 million population is Muslim, 1.59 percent is Christian, 1.6 percent Hindu and the remaining 0.22 percent a Muslim sect called Ahmadis.
Charges Lahore Archbishop Lawrence J Saldanha, head of the NCJP, "The blasphemy laws have been widely used for personal grudges. Forced migrations, the murder of innocent people, litigation and destruction were the outcome of these laws."
He is backed by an annual report released by Amnesty International last week, which found that, "Pakistan's blasphemy law continued to be abused to imprison people on grounds of religious belief, contributing to a climate in which religiously motivated violence flourished... The law continued to be abused to settle all kinds of personal scores."
Data from various sources shows almost 75 percent of cases registered under the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan are against Muslims. A total of 189 blasphemy cases are registered in the courts and 141 are against Muslims while 48 target members of minority communities. At least 279 publishers have been booked for blasphemy and 462 publications banned.
The National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP),a nongovernmental organization working for minorities'rights, has found that at least 543 Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis have been accused of blasphemy since 1990. The law punishes the guilty with death or life imprisonment as well as fines for written or spoken blasphemy.
The law dates back to 1927, when Article 295 was added to the then British laws in undivided India of which Pakistan was a part. It prescribed two-three years in jail for people convicted of blasphemy. Subsequently, former president General Zia-ul Haq made changes to its provisions in 1982 and 1984, enhancing the sentence for the offense.
Prolonged prison terms often mean the accused are at the mercy of the authorities, some of whom are religious fanatics keen on meting out personal justice.
According to the chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance Shahbaz Bhatti, "The attack on Masih wasn't the first of its kind. In 1992, blasphemy accused Tahir Iqbal was poisoned to death in a jail in Lahore." Bhatti has asked the government to abolish the law, form a judicial commission to review all pending cases and ensure the protection of prisoners under trial for blasphemy.
He feels "authorities have failed to protect the lives of innocent people charged with blasphemy. This law is a weapon in the hands of extremists to persecute non Muslims, especially Christians."
Like Christian college student Javed Anjum, who was reportedly severely tortured by the students and administration of the madrassa (Islamic seminary) of Jamia Hassan-Bin-Ali Murtaza, located in the central Punjab town of Toba Tek Singh.
Anjum, who lost his life in hospital on May 2, was kidnapped by people in the madrassa when he went there to drink water. His nails were pulled out and he was subjected to other forms of torture for six days to force him to change his religion.
In another case taken up by the Asian Human Rights Commission, the information coordinator of the Islamabad-based Christian organization Peace Worldwide was murdered by three men in February. His sister received death threats this month because the family refused to withdraw their complaint against the alleged perpetrators, two of whom are at large.
In view of such attacks, Bhatti bemoans the absence of proper legislation to tackle hate crimes in Pakistan, informing that the APMA and some legislators will table a constitutional bill in Parliament next month aimed at eliminating hate crimes.
Akbar Khan Durrani, a lawyer working with the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement, points out that powerful people often abuse the law to help them win property and other disputes with the accused. Many charge that verdicts in such cases are biased in lower courts, whose rulings have often been overturned by superior courts.
Amid increasing criticism of authorities, Punjab province minister Abdul Aleem Khan informs that the government has set up a National Minority Development Council to work for the betterment of minorities in Pakistan. Assuring that minorities' rights will be protected in Pakistan, Khan adds that, "The minorities living in the four provinces have been given representation in the council, which will fund various development activities."
Posted on 2004-06-07