New killings add to Pakistan’s unending saga of blasphemy-misuse

AWKU hostel where Mashal Khan was killed.

Brutal deaths of Mashal Khan and Fazal Abbas highlight blasphemy laws as a tool

Waqar Hussain

One after the other, two brutal killings in the name of ‘blasphemy’ in Pakistan, added to the unending story of misuse of blasphemy laws amid serious concerns of society to stop this exploitation.

On April 13, Mashal Khan, 25, an exceptional student of journalism in Abdul Wali Khan University of Mardan (AWKUM) in Khyber Paktunkhawah province was lynched to death by a violent mob in the campus in broad daylight on propagated but unverified accusation of verbally committed blasphemy. On April 19, in a village Nangal Mirza in district Sialkot in Punjab province, three women entered a house and shot dead Fazal Abbas, in late 50s, in a rare incident, who was accused of blasphemy in 2004. Abbas had left the country to rescue his life and came back recently after securing bail from the local court.

“Highly charged mob in the AWKUM campus started gathering on early April 13 outside the journalism department. They made speeches there and beaten one of Mashal’s friend, accusing later of uttering derogatory remarks against religion,” Faiz Ali Shah, the university spokesman, said, adding, “Later, they approached towards hostel, nearly a kilometer away from the campus, where Mashal was rescuing himself.”

 

The door of Mashal's boarding room which was broke open by the mob.
The door of Mashal’s boarding room which was broke open by the mob. (CIRP)

 

The charged mob of a few hundred, in presence of some policemen and university’s official security guards, dragged Mashal from third floor of the hostel to main entrance where he was tortured and later shot to death. The attackers also tried to burn his body but police the police hidden it in a private car, later.

Police have found no concrete evidence against Mashal, provincial police chief Salahuddin Mehsud told country’s top court in a report. The most of the teachers and students in journalism department believed Mashal became victim of some personal grudge. They feared the campaign against Mashal and plan to attack him was organized and the situation was further exploited inciting students in campus and urging them to kill Mashal in the name of religion. He was straightforward, blunt in talk and outspoken with strong believe in socialism. He graduated in civil engineering from a Russian university before enrolling for journalism degree.

Shiraz Paracha, chairman journalism department of the AWKUM said they did not receive even a single compliant and have not heard from any person saying he uttered any blasphemous remarks. “The only fact about him, which I know, is his straight forwardness and holding people accountable for their authorities and his socialist views,” he expressed.

Family of Mashal believed their son was targeted under certain agenda. “The incident occurred just a few days after Mashal criticized university administration and pointed out negligence and inefficiency,” Muhammad Iqbal, father of Mashal said, adding, “We have to raise collective voice and take solid steps to stop this misuses of law and alarminglyrisingintolerancein society by setting examples.” Those who think there is an opportunity in this tragedy and term it a “defining moment” should know this is only the first step towards change, he stated. “There is a long way to go. It will take decades to end extremism and intolerance,” he concluded.

 

In the other killing, family of Abbas believed the agenda to implicate him in blasphemy and later kill him was sectarian and backed by anti-Shiite militant outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. “The case against him was lodged on uttering some ‘objectionable’ words against Prophet Abraham on 10th of Muharram in 2004 during mourning procession of Imam Hussain (in Islam). Qari Shafiq, a local leader of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (an anti Shiite sectarian outfit) lodge case against him. Abbas had left the country to save his life and came back recently,” his uncle Azhar Hussain said. He added the case against Abbas had sectarian motivation and blasphemy was used as a tool to exploit them. He believed the woman who killed Abbas was a former teacher in one LeJ seminary and was backed by the group. Police said they were looking into all angles and probing whether these women are linked to any extremist or terrorist group.

Historical perspective

According to a non-government organization in Pakistan – National Commission for Justice and Peace – from 2010 to 2017 the reported number of blasphemy victims was 480. Out of them seven were given short term imprisonment, 18 life imprisonment and 24 were awarded death penalty. The NCJP reports show between 1927 and 1986, only seven cases of blasphemy were registered in the subcontinent and from 1987 to 2013 more than 1,300 blasphemy cases were lodged against Muslims and minority group members. The number of reported extra judicial killings of blasphemy accused persons in Pakistan from 2005 to 2017 is more than 70, according to Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), a think tank focusing on extremism.

The blasphemy laws in Pakistan were modified with severer sentences in the 1980s during the time of military dictator Ziaul Haq.

At the end of 2016,the Standing Committee on Human Rights of Senate of Pakistan moved resolution to make suggestions for a specific definition of “blasphemy” in the law to stop its ongoing misuse. A couple of years ago Council of Islamic Ideological (CII) majority members stoke down suggestion to amend blasphemy laws to punish those misuse these laws. There is no example in Pakistan that courts have ordered to take action against the person who misused these laws.

What a religious scholar says

“It is unfortunate that the blasphemy laws are now being misused and people are making them as tool to settle personal scores, grudges. But courts and administration, hardly, take action against this misuse,” Mufti Muhammad Naeem, prominent Deoband-Muslim cleric and founder of Karachi based Jamia Binoria said, urging the state and government to wake up on the issue. He says though there are laws for taking action on telling lie or leveling false complaints but this is such an important and sensitive issue related to dignity of Islam and Muslims that government of the time should have larger level consultations with religious clergy and legal experts and frame a law particularly defining punishment for lodging false cases of blasphemy. Talking to CIRP, he also called for serious and thorough investigations into any such blasphemy allegation before lodging police areas in the beginning from the administration and government to show seriousness in stopping this misuse of blasphemy laws.

What a legal expert says

Aftab Bajwa advocate, and current general secretary Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), highlighting legal lacuna in taking action against misuses of blasphemy laws, said, presently, there is a procedure denied in Pakistan Penal Code and Criminal Procedural Code (CrPC) for leveling false complaints of any type. “However, under the law the person proved innocent is eligible to lodge complaint or even police can take up the matter but it hardly happens,” he told CIRP and added, “The dilemma in such cases is the person who is proved incident and is feed by the court in blasphemy laws is I so piety and under threat and prefers to secure his life only.” Also, he maintained, the sentence in the case of leveling false cases is only up to six months. “In blasphemy misuse, this sentence is nothing as compared to miseries of a victim or falsely trapped. There is need for serious legal improvements in controlling misuse of blasphemy laws.”

“Blasphemy cases in our country are mostly made and lodged under pressure. The investigations and court proceedings are also conducted under pressures,” Shaukat Javed, former Punjab police chief said. “Main reason of this continuity of misuse is because there is no legal provision to punish the accuser if the case is proven wrong. And there is compensation offered by the state if the person is proved innocent,” he said urging the state to take solid steps to stop misuse of blasphemy laws.

In 2009, a violent mob of a few thousand attacked a Christian Colony in Gojra, central Punjab burning seven of a family to death after setting ablaze the whole locality. In 2012, thousands of people beat a mentally-challenged man to death, and burned his corpse after he was accused of desecrating the holy Quran in district Bahawalpur in south Punjab. The attackers stormed a police station where the man was being interrogated and took him in their custody. .

In 2013, Junaid Hafeez,a young university lecturer in Multan was implicated in blasphemy accusation and was tried to kill.His lawyer Rashid Rahman was murdered for taking his case. Same year, an enraged mob torched more than 170 houses of a Christianneighborhood – Joseph Colony – in Lahore over a blasphemy allegation on a Christian man. In 2014, one woman and two minors belonging of Ahmadiyya community were killed after an angry mob attacked and burnt five houses, over blasphemy accusation on an Ahmadi boy.

 

“Implicating people in blasphemy cases and inciting others – exploiting their religious emotions – to kill the accused persons has become a dangerous trend in Pakistani society that need state’s serious attention.” IA Rehman.

 

Columnist and human rights activist IA Rehman said mob violence has become the rule in blasphemy cases because society has become more intolerant than before and has been totally brutalised. “Also, the consistent views of religious motivated authorities that the people have a right to kill blasphemers are source of encouragement for inciting mob and commit violence.” He said the government is unable to stop such violence. He maintained studies have established abuse of the blasphemy law for petty, often personal, ends and state showing reluctance to take action.

“The issue is our society is divided. Lot of people, unfortunately, consider it right to take law into hand as their acclaimed religiousobligation in this issue of blasphemy. The main challenge is mindset. One side is praising Mashal for his ideology while the other is condemning it. We have to think as state and society what we want to do to stop this. When we give mixed messages and there is no coherence this division deepens,” Paracha, the head of journalism department of the AWKUM viewed. “And we have tomake bold decisions and do soul searching rather hiding this issue under the carpet,” he said, adding, “We cannot be selective in this issue and we have to have rules of engagement for this collective cause.”