THE FRIDAY TIMES: Trouble in Layyah
By Syed Hussain
Pakistani civil society has been protesting controversial and discriminatory laws since General Zia-ul Haq enacted them in the 1980s. Now these laws are seen as tools extremists use against their social and political opponents
LAYYAH: On the evening of February 9, 2009, several thousand protestors – over 10,000 according to independent sources – gathered in Chak 172/TDA in the Layyah district in southern Punjab. The protestors, including many belonging to banned and active extremist organisations like the Jama’at-ud Dawa, were chanting anti-Ahmedi slogans and calling on the government to sentence to death four Ahmedi youths (students of Class 9 and 10 at a local academy) and an Ahmedi teacher for alleged blasphemy under Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code. Seven Ahmedi families were at the mercy of the mob that evening, and were threatened, but did not leave the village.
The four students and the teacher are accused of ‘disgracing’ the name of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) by scribbling graffiti on the walls of a latrine at a local Sunni mosque the night of January 27. The next day, activists of the banned Jama’at-ud Dawa, Sipah Sahaba Pakistan, Tehreek-e Khatm-e Nabuwwat Pakistan and other religious organisations took up the matter and organised thousands of people to protest this alleged case of blasphemy.
Local police took the accused, including two minors, into custody, stating that it was for their ‘protection’. Later, police officials admitted that there were no eyewitnesses or any proof that could implicate the five Ahmedis. Despite lack of evidence and witnesses, the accused remain in custody.
According to information gathered by TFT, the night of January 27, Shahbaz Qasim, son of retired schoolteacher and Jama’at-ud Dawa activist Maulana Noor Elahi Kulachi, knocked at the door of Gulzar-e Madina Mosque imam Muhammad Saeed, asking him to come out. Qasim was accompanied by the local press and a handful of people, and delivered a speech on a road near the mosque, claiming that two villagers, Safdar and Liaqat, had seen derogatory graffiti in the latrine of a mosque; this couldn’t be the action of Muslims but only Ahmedis.
The following day, they called Iqbal Hussain Shah, uncle of local MNA Pir Saqlain Shah. Hussain filed a First Information Report (#46/09) at Kot Sultan Police Station, implicating four students – Tahir Imran (19), Tahir Mahmood (19), Naseeb Ahmad (16), Muhammad Irfan (14) – and a teacher, Mubashar Ahmad (50) in the case. The arrested were sent on judicial remand by the local court on February 4. Before the remand, they were in police custody with Superintendent Pervez Tareen in charge of the investigation team.
The sole argument presented by the accusers is that since no Muslim can dare write the name of the Prophet (PBUH) on a latrine wall, it must have been written by someone from the Ahmedi sect. (Ahmedis were declared non-Muslims by the state of Pakistan in 1974.) It was learned by TFT that local Islamists had explicitly banned Ahmedi children from offering prayers in the said mosque or coming near it, and from mingling with other Muslims.
The local Ahmedi community, facing social boycott since this incident, seems helpless against this campaign led by extremists. The entire district is in the grip of an extreme anti-Ahmedi movement, and these elements are openly threatening the lives of Ahmedis. Pamphlets are being distributed among locals, warning the Ahmedi community of consequences if they do not leave the area. Local clerics are heard reminding people that Ahmedis are wajib-ul qatal and “should be eliminated”. Provocative speeches are being delivered regularly at local mosques – breaking laws against hate speech and misuse of mosque amplifiers. Most local political and religious leaders are supporting this campaign.
Police officials remain silent about this case. According to sources, the police do not want to risk the wrath of local influentials, as the Islamists enjoy the support of the local MNA’s uncle, Iqbal Hussain Shah. Shah ordered the police by telephone to lodge the FIR on January 28. Shah has now also convened a committee of various religious and local organisations to take up the issue.
“This is not the act of a Muslim, but that of an Ahmedi, and we will not tolerate it at any cost,” Kulachi’s aides told a fact-finding team of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Local extremists also tried to create obstacles for the HRCP team, and tried to prevent them from collecting other points of view.
The parents of the accused and elders of the Ahmedi community told TFT that the children studied at Superior Academy, a private tuition centre. The academy is located on a four-kanal plot, and is owned by local Ahmedis who charge a nominal rent. The accused used to offer their daily prayers on the academy premises, but teachers asked them to go to the nearby mosque instead (where the incident allegedly took place). Kareeman Bibi, wife of the accused Mubasher Ahmad, is facing a boycott by the neighbourhood, and even shopkeepers refuse to attend to her. The Ahmedi community denies charges of blasphemy, and is urging the state to provide justice.
The imam of the local mosque, Maulvi Saeed, told TFT that graffiti on toilet walls is a norm here, and people write each other’s names all the time. He was asked by some villagers to stop people from writing names on toilet walls. Saeed then issued a directive asking people to refrain from this activity.
Saeed stated that there is no eyewitness for this incident, adding that “when I saw the graffiti the next day, it had almost completely been erased.” Further, despite being the imam of the local mosque, Saeed was not invited to the February 9 ‘conference’ organised by local religious and political groups. Saeed also alleges that he was forced by Shahbaz Qasim and his associates to remain absent from the scene during police investigations.
Khalid Rauf, the station house officer of the concerned police station, told TFT that Iqbal Hussain Shah telephoned him, asking him to visit the scene and lodge the FIR: “I visited the place and saw the graffiti but there is no eyewitness account as to who has written it.” According to Rauf, Maulvi Kulachi was the first person on whose complaint the FIR was registered. When asked why the police was unable to handle the provocation of Islamist groups, Rauf expressed helplessness. Other police officials remained tight-lipped, and District Police Officer Muhammad Azam refused to meet with the HRCP team or TFT.
Saleem-ud Din, spokesman for the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan, told TFT that they would pursue this case, which according to him is religious exploitation of Ahmedis. He said that in the last few years, as many as 69 cases under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code have been registered against 263 members of the Ahmedi community. He demanded that the state protect the rights of the minority.
Mahboob Ahmed Khan, an advocate who led the HRCP fact-finding mission, told TFT that while Ahmedi students had been visiting the mosque to offer prayers on some days, they had been advised to do so by their seniors. Later, once they were told not to visit the mosque by a local high school teacher, they never returned to the mosque.
“It is an open fact that no evidence is available against the accused,” he said, adding that “it is also proved that before the arrest of the accused, no investigation was carried out by the SP investigation as required by law and the accused were held without any appropriate evidence.”
Khan also stated that the FIR was lodged under coercion and was now being pursued by radical Islamists. The HRCP has recommended that the Punjab government take immediate notice of this case, which is a clear example of the misuse of law; protect the accused; and ensure justice.
In 2004, an amendment was made in the Criminal Procedure Code Section 295-C, according to which the policy is bound to thoroughly investigate accusations of blasphemy before levelling criminal charges. The aim of the amendment was to reduce the scope of blasphemy laws, which are still widely abused and often result in death penalties. This amendment has not had any real effect yet.
Minority circles in the government, and the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, are quiet on the issue. Previously, while outside government, they had been vigilant and had protested incidents of persecution and discrimination.
Pakistani civil society has been protesting these controversial and discriminatory laws since General Zia-ul Haq enacted them in the 1980s. Now these laws are seen as tools for Islamist extremists against their social and political opponents.