THE PEOPLE VERSUS ABDUL AZIZ

July 09, 2017

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From a figure who revelled in his anonymity, Abdul Aziz turned into a media-savvy cleric
From a figure who revelled in his anonymity, Abdul Aziz turned into a media-savvy cleric

Ten years ago as millions watched the spectacle of the Lal Masjid siege that brought the capital to its knees, few could have imagined that one day the protagonist of this huge national embarrassment, the man who triggered the killing of 11 Pakistani soldiers on live television, would ever walk free again. Even fewer now recall that before his unveiling on national television as the burqa-clad would-be escapee, nobody outside the mosque had ever seen Maulana Abdul Aziz’s face. Unlike his media savvy brother Abdul Rashid Ghazi, Abdul Aziz (inspired by his hero Mullah Omar) never allowed himself to be photographed, a move that only added to his fearsome repute. Most people watching thought this would likely be the first and last time we would see his face. But in the years to come, he would not only walk free but also become a regular fixture on the airwaves.

Since 2007 Abdul Aziz has had at least 35 cases registered against him but now stands acquitted in all of these. For a man who waged war against the state and remains unrepentant — this is unprecedented. In fact the first cases registered against Aziz were initiated three years before the 2007 siege when he had issued a scathing fatwa against Pakistan army soldiers fighting Taliban militants saying they were not martyrs and did not deserve Islamic funerals.

The Musharraf government dismissed him from service as khateeb (prayer leader) of the government-run mosque in 2004, an order that still stands but has never been implemented. The Islamabad Capital Administration (ICT) insists that he was never officially re-appointed after this but Abdul Aziz is firmly back in the saddle. The one time the government tried to appoint a replacement, he was beaten to a pulp by seminary students when he arrived to lead Friday prayers after the reopening of the mosque in July, 2007. As one analyst remarked, “He [Aziz] is the only khateeb because he says he is. In the case of Abdul Aziz, the state has lost even the ability to replace a Grade 15 government employee.”

How did a man accused of treason, conspiracy against the state, and abetting gruesome terror survive criminal charges?

Despite serious terror charges faced by Abdul Aziz in the past, perhaps the most publicised case against him was brought by civil society activists in December 2014 who claimed they received death threats from the cleric after protesting his refusal to condemn the massacre at Army Public School (APS)-Peshawar. The case has dogged the current Interior Minister through most of his tenure amid accusations of a secret deal with the cleric.

Even as he rubbished the matter of Abdul Aziz as a “non issue” drummed up by “so-called civil society”, Chaudhry Nisar at a press conference on February 16, 2016 reiterated that the lower courts had noted that Aziz’s acquittals resulted from a “deliberately weak prosecution.” He argued that the botched trial sprang from of a policy of appeasement instituted by the previous government. However, Nisar’s critics allege that under him, this policy of appeasement turned into one of wilful protection and that the minister went out of his way to ensure that Abdul Aziz was not held accountable.

“He was very keen to ingratiate himself with the religious lobby and set himself apart from the previous government in this regard,” says Azaz Syed, an Islamabad-based investigative journalist, who has followed the Lal Masjid case closely from the beginning.

“After the APS attacks triggered the civil society movement, there was once again momentum to move against Abdul Aziz, even amongst sections of the military top brass” says Syed, “but this was opposed by Chaudhry Nisar who cautioned against it.” Syed admits that Nisar’s concerns of a backlash were not unwarranted but in the end the military was not prepared to move without civilian support on this issue which was not forthcoming.

Nisar was later publicly scornful of the protesters gathered outside Lal Masjid calling them “politically motivated” and their political allies [the Pakistan People’s Party] “hypocrites”. He argued that whereas the previous PPP government had allowed Maulana Aziz to re-assume the position of khateeb at the mosque and also gave him official police protection, it was he who withdrew it. Responding to the case filed by members of the citizens’ movement against Abdul Aziz for issuing death threats against them, Nisar justified inaction on the matter saying he would not allow the nation’s capital to descend into a bloodbath because of “the political showmanship” of a few activists.

In December 2015, after a year of dragging his feet on the civil society FIR, Chaudhry Nisar came under fire on the floor of the parliament after he denied that there were any cases pending against Maulana Abdul Aziz and that if anyone had any proof against the cleric it should be presented to him. “To say this at a time when there were warrants out for Aziz’s arrest, was nothing short of a blatant and shameless breach of parliamentary privilege. It’s a disgrace,” says activist Jibran Nasir who filed one of the cases.

In response to the minister’s denials, Nasir and fellow activists mailed every member of Parliament including Nisar, documentary proof of the evidence against Abdul Aziz including arrest warrants issued against him, a court order declaring Aziz an absconder, and a copy of an official notification issued to cellular companies to suspend services in areas in the Lal Masjid vicinity to prevent dissemination of Aziz’s Friday sermons. Why, the activists asked, if Abdul Aziz posed no threat, did mobile signals have to be jammed every time he gave a sermon?

Nisar shot back at a press conference a few weeks later. “If they talk of rights, everyone has rights including Maulana Aziz,” thundered the minister. This time he admitted that Aziz was an absconder in the case but scoffed at the charges. Brushing aside the seriousness of the allegations, Nisar said three similar cases of ‘death threats’ had been dismissed by the previous government so why the criticism of him now? He also said that there could be no death threats made because the protesters never came face-to-face with those inside the mosque, implying the charges were fabricated. Legal experts say that these remarks were prejudicial to the case, which was still in progress and inevitably affected the outcome.

The citizens’ case against Abdul Aziz was finally dismissed in January 2017 after the court cited lack of evidence. Complainant Jibran Nasir says the case proceeded as far as it did solely because of public pressure but the authorities were never interested in pursuing it. “The police did not bother to record statements from even a single one of the eight complainants who were threatened. The only statements they recorded were of three of Abdul Aziz’s accomplices who denied his presence in the madressah on the night the threats were issued.”

Nasir maintains that the protesters were threatened by Lal Masjid thugs and that they even issued a written warning against the protestors. Later, in an audio recording that was made public, Ehsanullah Ehsan, spokesperson of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) called up Nasir and threatened him with dire consequences if he did not stop ‘harassing’ Abdul Aziz.

On New Year’s Day 2015, exactly a year before Chaudhry Nisar told parliament that there was no proof against Maulana Abdul Aziz, an ISI report was leaked to the media that contained details of Abdul Aziz’s links to terror outfits.

Although the TTP threat was eventually doused, another was in the making: Islamic State (IS). Nasir argues that an even graver crime the interior minister covered up is Abdul Aziz’s public invitation to IS extended on November 26, 2014, to come to Pakistan and exact revenge on the Pakistan army. “This was an act of treason and constitutes conspiracy to wage war on the state,” he says.

Even before the students of Jamia Hafsa publically pledged allegiance to IS, intelligence reports of Abdul Aziz’s links to militant groups had been surfacing on a regular basis. On New Year’s Day 2015, exactly a year before Chaudhry Nisar told parliament that there was no proof against Abdul Aziz, an ISI report was leaked to the media that contained details of Abdul Aziz’s links to terror outfits. The report titled Activities of Maulana Abdul Aziz and forwarded to the Ministry of Interior by the ISI, warned the government that Aziz was trying to reorganise a militia in the heart of the federal capital.

“[The] Lal Masjid mafia has links with militant groups and land grabbers and is currently reorganising the Ghazi Force militant group spawned by [his] followers after the Lal Masjid operation. Activities of Maulana Abdul Aziz and Lal Masjid administration, if not checked / contained can subsequently create [a] serious law and order situation in [the] twin cities,” reads the report.

It further reiterated evidence of links between the TTP and the Lal Masjid cleric, noting that the Taliban had nominated him as their representative to negotiate a peace deal with the government. Three weeks after the report was made public, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a wheat field near Wah after being chased by police who tried to arrest him. The bomber was later identified as Kausar Ali, a former student of the Lal Masjid-run Jamia Fareedia seminary, who joined the Ghazi Force and was on his way to blow up targets in Rawalpindi.

A day later, the Islamabad Police presented the Senate’s Standing Committee on Interior with yet another report which stated that TTP elements had established contact with Abdul Aziz in a bid to revive the Ghazi Force and target his critics. “Police and intelligence agencies have identified 198 suspected militants who are believed to be working for the Ghazi Force,” reads the police report.

Former IG Islamabad Bani Amin confirmed to the press at the time that two militant commanders named Mullah Sabir and Mullah Rahim were commanding the force and had previously been involved in 21 suicide attacks in Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Police sources further stated at the time that they were interrogating at least 53 suspects linked to the Ghazi Force who were known to visit Lal Masjid.

The ISI report quoted earlier also links Abdul Aziz to “notorious land grabber” Taji Khokar, whom it states has been arranging for land for the construction of seminaries and also assists Abdul Aziz with his court cases. The ISI also linked property tycoon Malik Riaz to Abdul Aziz as a ‘sympathiser’ of the cleric. The report makes the claim that Malik had been providing financial help to the Lal Masjid administration, including paying their utility bills and financing the construction of seminaries including one in Bahria Town named Jamia Hafsa which houses 750 girls.

On the issue of Aziz’s operational role in reviving the Ghazi Force, journalist Azaz Syed is sceptical. “He [Aziz] simply does not have the capacity or competence to organise a militia. He is known to be a bad organiser even as far as day-to-day matters of the seminary are concerned.” Syed also believes that the threat from the Ghazi Force has now been largely neutralised as most of the members of the group have been killed or captured.

Still many others strongly believe Abdul Aziz’s links to terrorists can never be severed and that his continued liberty without accountability remains a powerful symbol of the state’s ultimate capitulation to theocratic gangsterism.

The writer is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He tweets @ziadzafar

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 9th, 2017