Pakistan religious leaders debate blasphemy law

Lahore, September 4 (CDN) — An unexpected twist in the Rimsha Masih blasphemy case appears to have paved the way for her freedom from apparently false charges of desecrating the Quran. The imam who supported her accuser was himself arrested and appeared in court on the same charge as the girl, that of desecrating the Quran, which he’s alleged to have done in tampering with evidence presented against her. Rimsha’s lawyer Tahir Naveed Chaudry said the case against his client had completely collapsed. “There’s nothing left in the case …the prosecution has completely failed.”

Naveed said he was quite hopeful that Rimsha would be freed on bail on Sep 7th. “I was hoping for her release, but unfortunately it got delayed again,” he said, adding that he will file an application to quash the case against her once she is released.

In the meantime, the case has triggered a debate on how Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws are being used to settle personal scores and vendettas.

Before a magistrate in Islamabad on Saturday, deputy mosque leader Hafiz Zubair said he and two others were in the mosque when Rimsha’s accuser Malik Ammad came to the imam, Khalid Jadoon Chishti. The accuser brought a plastic bag that he claimed contained the ashes of a book allegedly burnt by Rimsha. (The book was to teach children Arabic so they could read the Koran).

Zubair said the imam then brought some pages of the Quran from inside the mosque and mixed them with the ash. “I asked why he was fabricating the evidence. He said this would ensure a strong case against the girl and would ultimately help them in evicting the Christians from the locality,” said Zubair, adding that two others present in the mosque had also asked the imam not to place false evidence.

Following Zubair’s testimony, police raided Jadoon’s house and arrested him. They charged him with the same case registered against Rimsha [under a section of Pakistan’s blasphemy law which calls for life imprisonment to any person found guilty of wilful desecration of the Quran].

On Sunday, a local magistrate sent the imam to jail on remand until Sep 16th.

Zubair’s revelation came as a very pleasant surprise to Pakistanis, a majority of whom had been condemning the arrest of a minor girl on blasphemy charges from the start.

On Monday, two more witnesses appeared in court. Their statements were further evidence that Jadoon may have been mainly responsible for the ordeal of the minor Christian girl and the forced migration of several hundred Christians from the capital Islamabad.

A medical board formed to evaluate Rimsha also submitted its report to the court on Monday. The medical board consisted of a physician, surgeon, medico-legal officer, dental surgeon and a gynaecologist.

According to their report, Rimsha is approximately 14 years old but has the mental capability of a younger child.

Talking to Open Doors News, Rimsha’s lawyer Tahir Naveed Chaudry said “I was hoping for her release, but unfortunately it got delayed again. But these delays prove a blessing in disguise for her and all those who have been praying for her. If the court had freed her on bail early, we would not have been able to see what we are seeing today. These witnesses might not have stepped forward and the truth would have remained hidden. Now everyone has come to know how vested interests entrap innocent people in serious cases such as this one”.

Naveed, a member of the Punjab Provincial Assembly, said the unfortunate incident had become a test case for the people in general and the government in particular. “The case has prompted everyone of us to ponder how innocent people are made to suffer by their enemies. The widespread condemnation of Jadoon’s action shows that there is still hope for things to improve in Pakistan,” he said.
Dr Paul Bhatti, Minister in-charge of National Harmony, told Open Doors News that Rimsha’s case had opened chances to discuss the blasphemy laws with Islamic clerics. “The case has enabled us to discuss the misuse of the laws with our Muslim countrymen. I have been talking with various Muslim religious leaders over the past few days to consider how to deal with such cases effectively,” he said.

On revisiting previous blasphemy cases, including that of Aasia Bibi, Bhatti said almost all such cases are in courts now and there’s little the government could do but wait for their verdicts.

“They are in a judicial process so there’s nothing much that can be done at this stage. Most blasphemy cases registered against Muslims and Christians involve very poor people, which shows they are most vulnerable. However, we will try to form a body in cooperation with the Muslim clerics that will probe into all accusations of blasphemy to dig out the truth. This should be a first step towards stopping the misuse of the blasphemy laws,” he said.

On Rimsha’s future once she is freed by the court, Bhatti said there was no proposal under consideration to send Rimsha and her family out of Pakistan. “I don’t think they will want to leave Pakistan. If it’s proved that she is innocent, I don’t think any Muslim will want to hurt the family because of the false accusation made against her. We will try to relocate them, if at all, and provide a new job for her father so that they can start afresh,” he said.

On the future of several Christian families that had migrated from the same locality, fearing violence, Bhatti has asked the Interior Ministry and the police to provide him a complete list of those now housed in various parts of the capital. “From our investigation, it appears some vested interests are behind the whole episode. The imam also appears to be part of that conspiracy, which is most likely aimed at grabbing the land. Although the Christians don’t have the property rights to the land, and are merely tenants of the Muslims, it’s becoming quite clear that a land mafia has set its sights on the area, and wanted to evict the Christians to clear their way,” he said.

Asked if the Christians willing to return to the area needed police security, he said the situation had resolved and he did not anticipate any violence. “We are however looking at various options to resettle them,” he said.

Meanwhile, Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, urged the government to set up a team, including intelligence agents, to investigate and “get to the bottom of the conspiracy and expose the real culprits”.

“Our heads bowed in shame for what Jadoon did,” he said, but added there are “many others active behind the scene and they should be brought to justice”.

Ashrafi said that Jadoon should be given the sternest punishment possible for maligning Islam, and also called for an unbiased approach to stem false accusations. “Pakistan’s minorities are as much a part of the country as Muslims. We suspected foul play in the entire situation and at least our suspicions proved correct. Jadoon and all others involved in this shameless action should be held accountable and set an example for all future false accusers,” he said.

Ashrafi said he was willing to talk to all religious leaders, to form an opinion against the misuse of the blasphemy laws. “We will not allow anyone to implicate an innocent person because of personal reasons. Rimsha’s case is indeed an eye-opener for all of us and we are truly sorry for all the agony and pain the poor girl has had to suffer because of a person who does not know the true basis of Islam,” he said.

Asif Aqeel, director of the Center for Law and Justice, an affiliate of the European Centre for Law and Justice, told Open Doors News that the number of cases filed against Christians looks very small when compared with the full enormity of the fear these cases spread among minority communities.

“The recent experience of a Christian school teacher would suffice to illustrate this impact. On August 27, the teacher (whose identity cannot be disclosed) was present in school morning assembly. (He was appointed to this government school in 2009). While addressing both students and teachers, a Muslim teacher said that he had read about Rimsha Masih’s “blasphemous act” in the paper. He said that every non-Muslim was a kafir and these infidels had united themselves against the Ummah [Muslim community] across the world. The Muslim teacher also mentioned the American presence in Afghanistan to support his argument and to stress that the Muslims need to unite against these “forces of evil”. The Christian teacher said he was seriously intimidated by his colleague’s statement because he was the only Christian teacher in the school and almost all the students were Muslim,” Aqeel said.

Aqeel said criminal cases against Christians under the blasphemy laws are not the appropriate instrument to measure the amount of insecurity and vulnerability that exists.

“In light of the enormity of the threat, the Pakistani Church and Christian NGOs have not yet successfully forged a comprehensive strategy to give a needed response, which is appropriate in this situation. So far, the Church and Christian NGOs provide legal assistance, shelter and food to those accused of blasphemy. There is no united legal front to protect the Christians, and organizations often work on legal cases in isolation.

A coordinated response should include raising the income bracket of Pakistani Christians who are extremely poor and uneducated. The chances of being accused of blasphemy are inversely related to socioeconomic indicators: the higher the income and social position the lower the chances of being accused of blasphemy. There is no case of blasphemy lodged against the Zoroastrians (Parsis) because they are the most educated and well -off community in Pakistan. The highest number of cases lodged against any non-Muslim community are against Christians, who are the poorest and least educated when compared with other religious communities. Hence, there is a need to adopt a holistic approach to rising persecution against Christians. This holistic approach should also include how to minimize misuse of the anti-blasphemy laws, rather than looking for an amendment or abolition of these laws.”

– Case against Rimsha’s dramatic turn prompts Pakistan religious leaders to debate blasphemy law, Compass Direct News, September 4, 2012 — © Compass Direct News. Published in Religion News Blog by permission.

Pakistani Woman Accused of ‘Blasphemy’ Illegally Held in Jail

LAHORE, Pakistan, April 10 (Compass Direct New) – The mother of a 6-month-old girl has been wrongly jailed for more than a month, as Pakistani authorities have failed to file a charge sheet within the mandatory 14-day period against the young Christian woman falsely accused of “blaspheming” the prophet of Islam, her attorney said.

Shamim Bibi, 26, of village Chak No. 170/7R Colony, in the Fort Abbas area of Bahawalpur district, was charged under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s “blasphemy” statutes after neighbors accused her of uttering remarks against Muhammad. She was arrested on Feb. 28.

Speaking ill of Muhammad in Pakistan is punishable by life imprisonment or death under Pakistan’s internationally condemned blasphemy laws.

“Shamim has been implicated in a completely baseless case,” said her husband, Bashir Masih. “I was present with her at the time of the alleged incident … nothing of the sort happened. The Muslims cooked up a false story, though it’s still not clear who provoked them into leveling this accusation.”

After visiting his wife in jail today, Bashir told Compass by phone that she was holding fast to her Christian faith and firmly believed that God would rescue her soon from the false charge.

“She is alright otherwise, but she especially misses her daughter,” Masih said. “We are not sure when Shamim will be able to come back home, although our lawyer is quite hopeful of securing her release very soon.”

One of the two witnesses named in the First Information Report (FIR), Abdul Qayyum, has already denied hearing anything from her that supports the charge.

“The police just did not listen to our pleas and went ahead and registered a case against my innocent wife,” he said. “It’s been over a month now, but the police haven’t filed a charge sheet against her. Who will compensate for the agony that my wife and family are suffering for no fault of ours?”

Shamim Bib’s lawyer, Mahboob A. Khan, told Compass that he had filed a bail application on March 17, but the court has not taken it up.

“The complainant party has changed their lawyer, and their new counsel filed his papers in court at today’s [Tuesday] hearing,” Khan said. “The bail application will now most likely be heard at the next hearing.”

On the delay in completing the charge sheet, Khan said that police were supposed to register it within 14 days of filing the FIR under the Code of Criminal Procedure. Police say that they have forwarded the charge sheet to the prosecution department, but there has been nothing from them either, he said.

“The judicial process is painfully slow, and it’s even slower in such sensitive matters,” Khan said. “I just hope the judge realizes the gaps in the case, and even if he does not muster enough courage to quash the case, he should at least set her free on bail.”

Shamim Bibi’s family had earlier told Compass that she had been accused because she had resisted pressure to convert to Islam four days before her arrest. Three relatives had become Muslims on Feb. 24 and urged her to do the same, and when she refused, neighbors on Feb. 27 accused her of making derogatory remarks – as yet unknown – about Muhammad (see www.compassdirect.org, “Pakistani Woman Charged with ‘Blasphemy’ for Refusing Islam,” March 12).

Ansar Ali Shah, a local prayer leader in Chak 170/7R Colony, claimed that Shamim Bibi’s neighbors, Hamad Ahmed Hashmi and Abdul Qayyum, told him and other Muslims that they had heard the Christian woman making derogatory remarks about Muhammad in her courtyard, according to the First Information Report (FIR No. 30/12) registered by the Khichiwala police station. But there is no indication in the FIR of what, exactly, Shamim Bibi was alleged to have said.

As word of the allegation spread, a large crowd of villagers besieged her house and demanded “severe punishment for the infidel,” claiming she had hurt their religious sentiments, sources said.

Shahbaz Masih, her brother-in-law, told Compass that Qayyum told police that he wasn’t even present in his house at the time of the alleged incident and had come to know about it from Hashmi, the other witness. Hashmi, a motorized-rickshaw driver, also was not present at his house at 3 p.m., the time of the alleged remark, Shahbaz Masih said, based on information gathered from Shamim Bibi’s neighborhood.

Bahawalnagar Superintendent of Police Investigation Irfan Ullah has acknowledged that one of the two witnesses had admitted to not being present at the alleged “crime” scene at the time of the alleged remark.

– Pakistani Woman Accused of ‘Blasphemy’ Illegally Held in Jail, Murad Khan, Compass Direct News, Apr. 10, 2011 — © Compass Direct News. Published in Religion News Blog by permission.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been widely condemned in large part because they have been used as a tool for the persecution of religious minorities.

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