Rising Religious Intolerance Sparks Custodial Death in

Thursday 3 June 2004, by Ahmad NAEEM KHAN

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."

President Pervez Musharraf has also reportedly
announced his intention to amend discriminatory laws
like the Hudood Ordinance and the Blasphemy Law. The
government intends to present a bill in Parliament
soon to stop misuse of the laws.


OneWorld South Asia
31 May 2004

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