Punishing the powerless
Poor minorities are usually the target of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws
Written by Khaled Ahmed | Published: March 31, 2018 12:15 am
The punishment for blasphemy is death. Once accused of blasphemy it is normally assumed that the victim has to die. (Representational Image)
On February 25, Patras Masih, an 18-year-old Christian boy in Lahore’s Shahdara locality, was accused by the local Muslim community of blasphemy. He was arrested and thrown in jail, the case being non-bailable. During investigation, which can be pretty brutal under the Blasphemy Law, especially if the victim is non-Muslim, Masih tried to save his life by accusing another fellow Christian, Sajid Masih, of the same offence. Sajid, a poor janitor, was summoned by the police.
According to Sajid, after his arrival at the building of Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) on Temple Road in Lahore on February 23, “he was tortured… by some officials of the agency”. The boy then jumped from the FIA building and suffered multiple fractures. The punishment for blasphemy is death. Once accused of blasphemy it is normally assumed that the victim has to die. If he is a non-Muslim and found innocent he can expect to spend a lifetime in jail. This applies to Christians, the most downtrodden and deprived population in Punjab.
The FIA’s account of what transpired understandably differs but it is likely to carry the day before the magistrate when the case comes up for trial. No court is likely to let a non-Muslim accused walk, even if he is innocent. The judge’s life can be in danger if he allows justice to take place. He is more likely to hand a death sentence and expect the poor non-Muslim to appeal against the verdict. Such cases tend to hang fire till they reach the Supreme Court. Many such cases have become internationally recognised as the outcome of a cruel discriminatory law that Pakistan can’t take off its Penal Code.
In the latest case, police alleged Sajid Masih tried to escape when his phone was about to be checked for blasphemy. Sajid himself says that he was repeatedly beaten and accused of having committed blasphemy. “They beat him with computer wires and slapped and punched him,” says Aneeqa Maria, his lawyer. Four FIA officials then tried to force Sajid to perform oral sex on Patras after which he “confessed”. His father says, “Sajid said that he’d rather die than do this. That is why he jumped.”
Sajid Masih’s family left their home — a village 20 km from the centre of Lahore — to escape what could be coming next: A mob attack led by a fiery Muslim cleric more interested in the abandoned real estate than the honour of the Holy Prophet. A mob of angry protesters also stormed the neighbourhood, demanding that Patras Masih be produced. Upon discovery that he had already fled, they brought cans of petrol to burn his house down. This is routine. Someone accuses a poor Christian, the police arrests him under a law which forbids bail, then a mob attacks the house. Since the family has already fled, the mob looks for other Christians, blasphemers by association. In this case too, 800 Christians had to flee or get themselves thrashed, possibly killed.
Christians are the poorest of Pakistan’s slum dwellers. They seldom have deeds to the hovels they build as houses. But that is enough to attract Muslims. The fleeing Christians knew it was their houses the mob wanted. This has happened over decades since the Blasphemy Law was enacted to entrap them.
This time, the Barelvi organisation, Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (Here I am O Holy Prophet), got into the act and lodged an FIR against Patras Masih. The Tehreek hoodlums blocked the highway and rightly expected the Muslims to rally around and the police to come under pressure.
Blasphemy is not the only gimmick to target people you don’t like. You have the law about desecration, too. In 2008, a mute person in Bahawalnagar was sentenced to life in prison for desecrating the Holy Quran. The panchayat was loaded against the accused and had him thrashed; the police followed suit, and a magistrate handed down a life sentence to the poor man. The so-called desecrater spent nine years in jail before the Supreme Court set him free in December 2017 on the basis of defective testimony, the judges saying the accuser should be punished instead. Of course, that was empty rhetoric.
The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’
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