Vigilante "Justice" in Pakistan

Pakistani police and government authorities have remained silent over the recent immolation of a mentally disabled Muslim male near Bahawalpur, in the southern region of Pakistan, for alleged blasphemy against the Holy Quran.

It is the latest in a growing string of such murders. No arrests have been made since the July 25 incident, which took place in the South Punjab of Pakistan region. Ghulam Abbas, a homeless male in his 40s, was burned to death by a mob of 2,000 men for allegedly desecrating the Muslim holy book. Locals complained that he had supposedly ripped pages from the Quran.

Although he was arrested and taken into police custody, Muslim religious leaders began demanding on mosque loudspeakers that the people punish the alleged blasphemer. Within hours, a mob gathered outside the police station and demanded either police kill him, or hand him over for punishment The police were unable to control the emotionally charged crowd, mainly students from the neighborhood madrasahs, who attacked the police station, injured seven policemen, burned several police vehicles and broke into the jail. The mob also attacked the home of a police officer and burned his furniture.

The mob then dragged Ghulam through the streets, beating him, then doused him with petrol and set him alight despite his screams for help.

The case again highlights the dangerous nature of country’s blasphemy laws, under which anyone can be killed on a simple allegation of insulting Prophet Muhammad or the Quran. Human rights organisations, minority groups, and others have denounced the outrage. Although President Ali Zardari ordered an investigation of the incident, no progress has been made and none is expected. The absence of action by the Punjab government appears to endorse the vigilante justice and empowers those who make their own justice in the name of religion.

"It is upsetting that police did not arrest anyone even though a First Information Report has been filed against the attackers," a Christian leader said.

Local people say that fundamentalists were involved, making it unlikely that police will take action. It is also the act of an angry mob, making it difficult to identify a lone culprit. However, in previous cases, the culprits remained unpunished even after they were identified.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has demanded a credible inquiry and said its findings should be made public.

“The government must not only compensate the family of the deceased for its failure to protect the life of a man in police custody from ‘mob justice,’ but also take concrete measures to avoid such unfortunate incidents in the future,” the rights commission said. Since the introduction to the blasphemy laws, many people belong to religious minorities including Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis have been murdered. Although the laws are mainly used against religious minorities, many Muslims have been charged as well.

Mob lynching of alleged blasphemers has been on the rise. In the recent months, many incidents have taken place across the country. On June 17, for instance, a mob tried to storm a police station in Karachi to get hold of a Muslim, Saleem, who was booked and arrested for allegedly desecrating the Quran, but police fired into the air and threw tear gas to scatter the crowd. By the police accounts, the accused was a drug addict. The mob demanded that the police hand over the suspect so that they could hang him. Later, the police have put him in insolation as a protective measure.

On June 16, in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, a mob stormed into a police station and was intent on stoning a man to death accused of blasphemy, and desecration of the Quran. The police responded with tear gas and gunfire to restore order, with the result that two children were killed and around 15 people injured.

In April this year, in a similar case in Faisalabad another Muslim, identified as Imran, was also rescued by police from a mob, which was fired up by a local fundamentalist organization. Police sources said the man was mentally ill and had denied the charges. During the same month in Lahore, yt another Muslim man, Iqbal Butt, 80-year old, was murdered after having been released from jail after having been acquitted of the charge of blasphemy.

Under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, introduced by the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, blasphemy against the Prophet is punishable by death while blasphemy against the Quran is punishable by life imprisonment. Unfortunately, people have been killed despite the fact that the majority of charges have been proven false later.

Such charges go back a long way. In 1994, Hafiz Farooq Sajad, also a Muslim, was murdered by a mob in Gujranwala, Punjab province, because his neighbor had accused him of desecration of the Quran. He was burnt to death in the same manner as Ghulam Abbas was killed.

Two Christian brothers accused of writing a blasphemous pamphlet were gunned down at the session’s court in Faisalabad on July 19, 2010. In 2009, seven Christians, the majority of them women and small children, were burnt alive in Gojra, Punjab province, when a Muslim mob attacked a Christian church alleged desecration of the Quran in a village near Gojra City.

Minorities have been constantly living under pressure because they are the easiest target of blasphemy allegations. Many members of minority community have been jailed and executed. Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, has been imprisoned for more than three years and awaits a death sentence for alleged blasphemy charges. Last year, two prominent Pakistani political figures, Governor Salman Taseer and Minority Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, were killed, raising serious concerns over the rise of religious extremism in. Ironically, Urdu media, especially electronic media, offered a platform for the justification of Taseer’s murder by inflaming passions.

Unfortunately, the nexus of bigotry between mullah and media promotes intolerance with pride, which is putting many innocent people’s lives on risk.

Although recently President Asif Ali Zardari has said that the government is determined not to permit anyone to misuse blasphemy laws against minorities or any other vulnerable groups, the misuse of the laws is on the increase. It is not only the government which has little appetite to save innocent people from the wrath of the fanatics. Regrettably, the majority of political parties are not ready to take the issue. For some, this is not even an issue.

For instance, emerging political leader Imran Khan, a famous cricketer, has no interest in the violent cases related to blasphemy laws because, as he told the BBC, only few hundred people are affected by these laws. People are not surprised over his thoughts because he is a major supporter of Taliban and their ideology. However, what he said, certainly, has serious ramification. Khan has also attended the rallies of the Defa-e-Pakistan Council, led by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, head of a terrorist organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba.

When the establishment, a big section of the media, the judiciary, religious groups and many political parties have the same illogical approach towards blasphemy cases, asking rational questions about the laws are almost impossible. About a month ago, Gabriela Knaul, the UN’s special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, criticized Pakistan’s application of its blasphemy laws.

“I am especially concerned regarding cases brought under the so-called ‘blasphemy law’ as it was reported to me that judges have been coerced to decide against the accused even without supporting evidence; as for the lawyers, in addition to their reluctance to take up such cases, they are targeted and forced not to represent their clients properly,” KNaul said during her visit. “In addition, judges, prosecutors and lawyers working on cases related to terrorist acts and organized crime are also often the target of serious threats and attacks from various actors, including non-State actors.”

She was further struck, she said by reports of existing laws, such as the blasphemy law, being misused to target women and strip them of their fundamental rights.

“Many stages of the justice system, starting with filing a case with the police, to accessing lawyers and appearing and testifying before courts, are gender-biased, and this impedes the full functioning of justice for women.”

Recently, the London based Minority Rights Group International said it was deeply disappointed at the failed efforts to amend Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which discriminates against and targets religious minorities.

“This law poses a serious threat to Pakistan’s religious minorities and should be removed,’ said Carl Soderbergh, Director of Policy and Communications.

Although the widespread misuse of the law remains a serious concern for human rights organizations in and outside of the country, the laws cast a murky shadow across Pakistan. The laws have become the source of intimidation, fear and violence. Minorities have been demanding the total repeal of them. If it is impossible at this stage, the laws must be modified to offer safety contrary to fabricated blame, and the victim should get free and fair trial.

(Aftab Alexander Mughal is the editor of the E-Magazine Minorities Concern of Pakistan)