Thursday, January 12, 2017
Alizeh Kohari - For the Love of God: The Violent History of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws / Family of assassinated Governor Taseer continues be the target of fundamentalists
On the last page of the post-mortem report, the medical examiner had dismissed, with a large cross, the silhouette upon which she was meant to identify injuries, scribbling instead: “whole body is completely burnt, almost to ashes, only a bony skeleton identifiable.” She reiterated this six months later before a roomful of lawyers wilting in black blazers, patiently describing to the defence counsel how the victims were delivered to her in plastic bags, one labelled Shama, the other Shahzad. It was a mid-May afternoon and the power was out in the anti-terrorism court – load-shedding, Lahore – so the lawyers fanned themselves with their files, casting beseeching looks at the air conditioner as they listened to witness statements. Outside, the hallways were filled with villagers from Chak 59 and nearby settlements of Kot Radha Kishan tehsil – 104 in total – handcuffed to one another. Inside, the medical examiner’s voice was getting smaller with each sentence, describing bones retrieved from the site – “small, mostly fractured” – and “organs, completely charred, matted together.”
The court stenographer paused.
“C-H-E-R-R-E-D,” said the judge impatiently. “Red, like cherry.”
The lawyers looked pointedly at their feet.
According to the Centre for Social Justice, a Lahore-based research and advocacy group, at least 62 men and women have been killed on mere suspicion of blasphemy between 1987 and 2015. So far, no one has been executed by the state. In this particular manifestation of an increasingly familiar phenomenon, on the morning of November 4, 2014, Shama and Shahzad Masih were dragged out of the 10-by-10 feet room in which they had sought refuge earlier that day, bludgeoned with sticks and hatchets by a mob that eyewitnesses say numbered in the high hundreds, then – and here accounts diverge – tied to a tractor, lugged across crushed stones on a half-constructed road, doused with petrol and flung into the brick kiln where they would both have gone to work the next day, had Shama not been accused of desecrating the Quran. She was one of at least 1,472 people who have been accused under the blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2015 – specifically under sections 295-B, 295-C and 298-A of the Pakistan Penal Code. As estimated by the Centre for Social Justice: 730 of these are Muslims, 501 are Ahmadis, 205 are Christians and 26 are Hindus. The religion of the remaining ten could not be ascertained – they were killed before any legal proceedings were initiated.
There was initially a great deal of public fury and wholesale condemnation, after Shama and Shahzad were burnt to death, followed by what some chose to view as heartening signs, whatever that could mean in a situation of this sort. Human rights campaigner Asma Jehangir thought that the response from the religious parties was positive. The state said it would be a chief complainant in the case.
People were rounded up and arrested. But slowly attention moved on to other things: the factory fire in Jhelum that targeted Ahmadis who were alleged to have blasphemed, the boy who cut off his own hand in Hujra Shah Muqeem town to punish himself for what he considered as constituting blasphemy. “Woh joh bhattay pe sarr g’ay,” recalled one man, himself Christian, but from Lahore, about six months after Shama and Shahzad’s death in the adjoining district of Kasur. Consider the curiously passive construction of his sentence: those who burnt to death at the brick kiln, not those who were burnt to death, as if spontaneous combustion were somehow the cause.
In district Kasur’s Chak-59, a stone’s throw away from the murder site, Muhammad Ilyas says his son had nothing to do with it. He pauses to light a cigarette, holding it between two trembling fingers. He exhales slowly. It is the only plume of smoke in the distance: the brick kilns lie dormant on that summer day in 2015. Every Wednesday, Ilyas visits his son, who he says is unjustly locked up in Shadman jail in Lahore. He himself spent four days there in November 2014, released only when his cough, a hacking sound that wells up from inside him, even as he continues to smoke, became worse.
The scale and pace of life in Lahore both exhaust and unsettle him: when he tried to cross the road outside the jail last week, a motorcyclist nearly trampled his toes. He wiggles them now, for effect.
No one in Chak 59 would say who the hundreds of men were whose rage led to the death of Shama and Shahzad, though they all concede, with an air of pronounced reasonableness, that the deaths did take place. “They came from outside,” Ilyas insists, referring to the mob. This is conspiracy theory number one in almost all mob attacks over accusations of blasphemy. The crowd that has assembled around Ilyas nods in agreement.
As Ilyas continues speaking – “Shama’s sister had converted to Islam, that was at the heart of everything” – a voice emerges from the crowd.
“You’re not speaking the truth.”
Ilyas stops speaking entirely, surprised into silence by a man who makes his way to the centre.
“I didn’t know those two. I have no reason to defend them,” the stranger says, his words tumbling forth with great urgency and deliberation. The effect is of a man trying to tiptoe across a crocodile pond as quickly as possible. “I don’t. But the truth is you’re — we’re — all just repeating things we’ve only heard.”
Ilyas tries to interrupt. The man next to him puts a hand on his shoulder. “Let him say what he has to say.”
The speaker hesitates, then decides to wade ahead.
“It was a misunderstanding. The girl’s father-in-law made amulets; that’s what the Arabic verses were for – she couldn’t even read. It was all a misunderstanding. Think about it. In a country like this, you have a majority and you have a minority. The minority is the ghulam qaum, slave nation – it knows it has to live by the terms of the majority. Why would anyone deliberately go out of their way to insult the majority, which has all the power?”
Silence. “I have no reason to defend them,” he repeats. “I didn’t know them.”
January 4, is the death anniversary of former Governor of Punjab Province Salman Taseer, who was killed in broad daylight by his own bodyguard in 2011, for appealing for the pardon of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who had been sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad.
After his assassination, Salman Taseer’s family continues to face the wrath of Islamic fundamentalists. His elder son, Mr. Shabaz Taseer, was abducted by the Taliban; he was only recovered later after remaining captive under the Taliban for four-and-a-half years.
And, now another son of the same ill-fated family, Mr. Shan Taseer, has been targeted for posting a message on Facebook in which he criticized the nation’s blasphemy laws and voiced his support for its victims Nabeel Masih and Asia bibi. In his video message Shan has beseeched all Pakistanis to pray for victims of the draconian blasphemy law.A police case has been registered in Islampura Police Station, Lahore, on the grounds of "hate speech" because of his Christmas greetings and for him requesting fellow countrymen to pray for minority members being exploited by, what he called, the “inhumane blasphemy law”. .. read more:
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