Police in Pakistan are known for being inefficient, corrupt and brutal. But when it comes to blasphemy cases they have behaved even more irresponsibly on a number of occasions, taking the law into their own hands and putting the accused to death without giving them the benefit of investigation or trial. This raises serious questions about the ability of the law and of law-enforcement mechanisms to take their course on an issue that inspires emotions as heated as blasphemy does. Or, to put it differently, there are two aspects to the debate on blasphemy laws: Are they effective as institutional tools to curb what is strictly a religious crime, and are they preventing people from dispensing mob and vigilante justice? The answer on both counts is no.
Hardly any incidents of blasphemy were reported before stricter punishments were introduced under these laws and new clauses were added to them in 1986. But since then, hundreds of people, more than half of them Muslims, have been accused of committing blasphemy, clearly indicating that these laws and their harsh penalties are either not working as deterrents or that people are being accused on trumped-up charges.
Evidence for the second question above is even more alarming: In at least 39 cases, angry members of the public – including policemen – took it upon themselves to punish the accused, demonstrating that they do not trust the law to deal with blasphemy.
While the answers to such questions are vital to the debate on whether or not we need the blasphemy laws, the Herald takes a look at some cases in which policemen either helped others punish the accused or allowed themselves to be overcome by their religious zeal and jumped the gun on official procedures and their own duty protocols to hand down death to those accused of blasphemy.
History: In August 2003, Samuel Masih was booked for blasphemy for allegedly throwing rubbish inside a mosque in Lahore’s Lawrence Gardens. While he was incarcerated in Lahore Central Jail, he contracted tuberculosis and was shifted to a local hospital for treatment in 2004. On May 24 that year, Faryad Ali, a policeman assigned to guard Masih in the hospital, entered his room and used a hammer to beat him up. A few days later Masih died of his wounds and Ali was arrested on murder charges.
Update: “Since Samuel Masih’s father Emmanuel and his family were receiving constant threats, they reconciled with Faryad Ali,” says Irfan Barkat, a former legal aid worker at the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP). “The policeman’s family gave them 600,000-700,000 rupees and they dropped all charges against him.”
Mian Qasim Ansari
History: In September 2009, police in Lala Musa town in Gujrat district arrested composers Mian Qasim Ansari, Irfan Naeem and Ghafoor Aslam. They had organised a book launch for author Asar Chughtai, whose work allegedly contained derogatory remarks about various prophets, including the Prophet of Islam. A couple of days later, police constable Saqib fired at and killed Ansari while he was in police custody. Saqib was detained and a case was registered against him.
Update: “Ansari’s wife pardoned Saqib and all charges were dropped against him,” says Waseem Ashraf Butt, Dawn’s correspondent in Gujrat.
History: On September 11, 2009 Fanish Masih was arrested from Jhateke village in Sialkot district on the complaint of Asghar Ali, who alleged that Masih had thrown some pages of the Quran in a drain. On September 15, the accused was found dead in a special security zone of Sialkot Central Jail. According to Jail Superintendent Farooq Lodhi, Masih had hanged himself by using the string of his shalwar. But Kiran Azaal at NCJP’s Legal Aid Cell says, “The post-mortem report showed that he had wounds on his head and marks around the neck, which convinced us that he was tortured. Moreover, he couldn’t have hanged himself with a string of his shalwar because he was dressed in a pant and a shirt.”
Update: Rosemary Paul of the NCJP says that a case has been filed against Lodhi for torturing Fanish Maish. It is pending hearing in a Gujranwala sessions court.
Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti and Manzoor Masih
History: In 1993, Manzoor Masih, Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih were arrested for allegedly writing blasphemous remarks on the wall of a mosque. While leaving a Gujranwala court in 1994 under police protection, they were attacked by unknown assailants. Manzoor Masih died on the spot and the other two received injuries. The police accompanying them did nothing to arrest the attackers. Later, a sessions court sentenced the two remaining accused to death. On February 23, 1995 a Lahore High Court bench, presided over by judges Arif Iqbal Bhatti and Chaudhry Khurshid Ahmed, set Salamat Masih and Rahmat Masih free. On October 10, 1997 Bhatti was killed in his law firm by an armed assailant. In 1998, police arrested one Sher Khan who admitted to murdering the judge and said that he did so because Bhatti had acquitted the accused.
Update: According to Barkat, Khan has “mysteriously disappeared from police custody.”
History: A former army officer, the author of many books on Islam and a former adviser to the Saudi government, Yousuf Ali was arrested in a blasphemy case registered on March 1997 on the complaint of Ismail Shujabadi, an office bearer of Tehrik-e-Khatm-e-Nabuwwat who accused Ali of claiming that he could show images of the Prophet of Islam. In August 2000, he was sentenced to death. On June 11, 2002 he was shot dead by a fellow prisoner in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat Jail as he was being shifted to another prison. The killer, Tariq Mota, belonged to sectarian militant organisation Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan.
Update: A departmental probe into the killing implicated the entire jail staff in the incident. It declared Assistant Superintendent Police Chaudhry Bashir primarily responsible for allowing four people (including a journalist) to smuggle a pistol into the jail. Bashir and two other jail officials were arrested on charges of negligence.
Sources: Dawn, Pakistan Christian Post, World Net Daily and BBC