Footprints: Fighting for a life lived in fear

Updated March 06, 2018

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PATRAS Masih’s family has fled their home in the Christian locality of Baba Bandook Saeein after a mob threatened to burn it down.—Photo by writer
PATRAS Masih’s family has fled their home in the Christian locality of Baba Bandook Saeein after a mob threatened to burn it down.—Photo by writer

ABID Masih sits on a stone bench outside the emergency ward at Lahore’s Mayo hospital, nervously scratching his salt-and-pepper beard.

Inside, his son Sajid is fighting for his life. Lying in the intensive care unit, the 24-year-old’s face is swollen, his legs wrapped in casts, and his body covered in bruises. Blood drips into a small bottle hanging by his left leg.

“The days are starting to meld together,” says Abid Masih, when I ask him how long he has been here.

On Feb 23, Sajid Masih threw himself from a fourth-floor window at the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Lahore headquarters during an interrogation into blasphemy charges. His cousin, Patras, 21, stands accused of having shared an allegedly blasphemous image to a Facebook messenger group. Sajid was called in for a digital forensic examination of his phone, to ascertain whether the image had been sent to him. During the examination, Sajid struggled with investigators, made a dash for the window, paused for a moment, and then jumped.

That Sajid jumped, and did not intend to survive the fall is a fact. Why he did so, however, remains open to a great deal of dispute.

Investigators say they were about to begin the examination of Sajid’s phone when he panicked and threw himself out of the window. Sajid tells a markedly different story. His lawyer quotes the young man as saying 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, the lawyer. Four FIA officials then attempted to force Sajid to perform oral sex on Patras, Maria says. “They forced him, and then he said no, and he begged for forgiveness.”

His father completes the story: “Sajid said that he would rather die than do this. That is why he jumped.”

Mob attack

Back at the family’s home in the Baba Bandook Saeein neighbourhood of the village of Dhair, about 20km from the centre of Lahore, the streets are quiet. The narrow concrete lanes, many of them broken from wear, form a tight grid, with dozens of brick houses crowded together. There is sewage in many of the streets, and the smell of faeces is overpowering, as those left in the neighbourhood gather to recall what happened on the afternoon of Feb 19.

“We fled in fear,” says Parveen Bibi, 70, who has lived here for decades. “We were afraid we would have been beaten, or that they would have broken into our homes.”

That day, scores of angry protesters stormed the neighbourhood, demanding that Patras Masih be produced. When it became clear that Patras had already fled the neighbourhood, they brought cans of petrol to burn it down.

“When I came home from work, I saw a lot of people gathered, raising slogans. They were shouting that a blasphemer can never be forgiven,” says Waris Masih, 54, a labourer.

Most of the neighbourhood’s roughly 800 Christians hurriedly left the area. Later that night, Patras surrendered himself to the police.

TLYRA intervention

Blasphemy allegations are often linked to existing disputes, either between individuals or communities. In this case, however, it is unclear whether such a dispute existed.

“Relations with the Muslims have always been good here, in the past,” said Inderias Masih, Patras’ father. The only such dispute he could think of was a fight between Muslim and Christian youths over playing space at a nearby cricket field, three months ago.

Most residents of Baba Bandook Saeein lack property deeds or any formal paperwork linked to their homes, Maria, the lawyer, says, suggesting a land grab may have been the motive.

There is, however, another possibility.

The Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA), a religious group led by firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, has championed the accuser’s case, stepping in to lodge the FIR in the name of local office holder Muhammad Owais. TLYRA posters are visible all over the Muslim parts of Baba Bandook Saeein, advertising a local event where Rizvi was due to speak. Owais’ name is prominent on the poster.

The TLYRA has been emboldened since it blocked a major highway into Islamabad for three weeks in November. Having emerged from that confrontation with all of its demands met, the organisation has been holding political rallies, fighting by-elections and making known its intention to fight in the 2018 general elections.

“We have always been very clear about our position on blasphemy,” says Ejaz Ashrafi, the group’s information secretary. “After the Faizabad sit-in, people have now heard about us a lot more. Our position is the same, but now people are much more drawn to us.”

However, moments after denying that the TLYRA was involved in the mob attack on the village, Ashrafi also threatens that anyone who, in their view, commits blasphemy should not consider themselves safe.

Back at the FIA headquarters, their understanding of the motive behind the case is somewhat different.

“[Patras] has given a sacrifice, so that the rest of his family can now be relocated and seek asylum in any other country,” says Khwaja Hammad, an FIA deputy director. “But not Patras. We won’t let him off the hook.”

The writer is Al Jazeera English’s web correspondent in Pakistan.

asad.hashim@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2018