Layyah case – School children accused of blasphemy

Four school children and an adult booked under the blasphemy law that carries death penalty


Kot Sultan, District Layyah (Punjab): The police charged four school-going Ahmadi children aged 14 – 18 and an adult on a false charge of blasphemy, under section PPC 295-C on January 28, 2009 with FIR 46/09 at police station Kot Sultan. The accused children are Muhammad Irfan, Tahir Imran, Tahir Mahmud and Naseeb Ahmad. Mr. Mubashir Ahmad, an adult is also on the list of accused. Although the complaint was made by one, Liaquat Ali, the fabricated accusation was pushed by Shahbaz, a school teacher, and one N.E. Kulachi who belongs to the religious group Jamaat-ud-Daawa, banned by the UN for promoting terrorism. Iqbal Hussain Shah, a political bully with PML (N) links played the leading role in precipitation of this ugly event.

The police arrested the accused without establishing a credible prima facie case. They charged them without evidence and before proper investigation. The applied blasphemy clause carries only death penalty. According to the relevant law (section 156-A), an officer of the rank of superintendent of police is required to investigate blasphemy cases. As this law was deliberately worded to make it ineffective, it provides no relief to those falsely accused, as happened in this case, and often before. This law is essentially mala fide like the blasphemy law. It is a hoax.

According to the accusation, graffiti defiling the name of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) was found on the toilet walls of a local mosque. It must have been undertaken by the four boys under instructions from Mr. Mubashir Ahmad, speculated the accuser. The complainant provided no credible evidence or eye-witness. The police recorded eight statements, all from the accuser’s party and none of them saw the accused writing the graffiti on the toilet walls. In fact, the accusation is false and smacks of conspiracy. It is material to this case that the local leadership who were aware of the reality did not support the charge. These included the Imam of the concerned mosque, the village-head and the Naib Nazim. The accuser, Liaquat Ali, himself reported no personal incriminating evidence, and delved mostly into hearsay. The FIR mentioned: “We all suspect that …”

The children were immediately arrested after the registration of the FIR, prior to any investigation. Inspector Khalid Rauf told AHRC (Asian Human Rights Commission) that “the gravity of the case against Islam justified arresting the children first. He said the police do not know of any substantial evidence that links the four students with the crime.” Unbelievable but true, that no police official saw what, if anything, defiling was written on the toilet walls. According to the AHRC “Family members were told (by the district police officer) that the police were under pressure from the fundamentalists to act against the children.”

They were later shifted to the D.G. Khan Jail (a far off place from their home town) on 4th February. Their near relatives were not allowed to meet them for some days.

“Four Ahmadi children charged with blasphemy have been sent to Dera Ghazi Khan Central Jail. Houses of the Qadiani community are besieged”, the Superintendent of Police (Investigation) Layyah, Pervez Tareen told the Frontier Post, “I have sent the children on judicial remand and would continue with the investigation.” However, he said that he could not give a time-frame for the conclusion of the investigation.

That made it very difficult for the parents to see their children for the much-needed parental support. The school administration, rather callously, expelled one boy, Muhammad Irfan from the school. The others were due to sit their Matriculation examination. They had to prepare for and sit their exams in prison. It was discovered later that the four children were being kept in one cell and the adult Mr. Mubashir Ahmad who could have been a pillar of support to them was incarcerated in another. Apart from a fortnightly meeting, they were not allowed to meet and none of them was allowed to come out of the cell for daily respite as a routine facility. The prison administration was less than sympathetic. They flaunted the ‘Blasphemy’ accusation when requested to allow a visit (Mulaqat) or a facility allowed under the rules. There were no fans. Conditions were very unhygienic. Mr. Mubashir Ahmad’s health was fragile; he is asthmatic. Muhammad Irfan, one of the boys, had a fever for weeks. He grew very weak and pale. Nothing except rudimentary medical care was available in the prison. This was worrisome for his parents. None of the accused had any previous experience of being involved in a police case. The children were at risk of long-term damage to their mental and physical health. The state kept them in prison simply because it found that more convenient.

These children were kept in unacceptable and inhumane conditions, while they were innocent, and the charges against them were false. They suffered at the hands of extremists while the Punjab Government decided to be soft against the agitators and harsh on the innocent. In the meantime those, who seriously threatened law and order and disturbed communal peace remained free and content, gloating at their easy victory over the authorities in forcing them to incarcerate Ahmadi children sans evidence.

The mulla, despite the arrests, continued to make threatening speeches, distributed leaflets and instigated the masses. Large processions were taken out and loot was attempted. Ahmadis had to shift their women and children to safer locations, but their men stayed at home to ensure self-defence. They also faced a social boycott.

For weeks the anti-Ahmadiyya lobby had been fermenting agitation. In the blasphemy accusation they found a convenient weapon with which to strike. Simultaneously, they threatened bloodshed, arson and processions. This provided an excuse to the police to register the case and make immediate arrests. It makes no sense that the police arrest innocent persons to forestall a threat to law and order. This amounts to playing in the hands of religious extremists.

It is noteworthy that the two men who were the prime-movers of the false accusation belonged to the extremist religious body, Jamaat-ud-Da‘wa (JD) banned by the UN for promoting terrorism. The Aalami Majlis Tahaffuz Khatme Nabuwwat, the cover organization of mullas who promote their national and international political agenda these days in the garb of End of Prophethood, strove hard to raise communal tensions in the weeks following the incident.  Saqlain Shah, the local MNA (PML-N) provided political support for the agitation. Sarwat Nadeem, a provincial minister of Balochistan, came all the way from Quetta to share the political spoils of a tense communal situation. The rabble-rousers, the self-styled Ghulaman-e-Rasul Punjab issued a leaflet with the following demand: “… The arrested Qadianis should be given death sentence forthwith. The Imam of the local mosque of Chak No. 172 should be immediately arrested and those who are in favor of overlooking the incident and dropping the case should be interrogated. If the local administration, the DPO and senior officials do not take action against the Imam, the people, motivated by religious zeal, will have to take action by themselves against the Imam”.

The Daily Times of January 30, 2009 reported: “Saqlain Shah, an MNA from Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, denied his uncle had pressured police. But he said representatives of the Ahmadiyya community should have visited his uncle’s residence for the matter to be resolved in line with local traditions, instead of denying the charges. He also said that Ahmadis had first lodged cases against local Muslims (for violating the Loud Speakers Act and under the Maintenance of Public Order) after not being allowed to hold a religious meeting, and should now ‘face the truth’.” Although what the MNA said is opprobrious, it manifestly shows the political support the accusers had and the warlord attitude to an issue which is essentially one of law and order.

The BBC reported that according to the police no one saw the named boys writing the (blasphemous) words. “Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (was) alarmed over four children’s detention on blasphemy charges”, reported the Daily Times, Lahore of January 30, 2009. “Victimizing children with false accusations is the most condemnable use of the blasphemy law”, said the Ahmadiyya community spokesman. The AHRC urged “the government of President Asif Zardari to immediately release the illegally detained prisoners. Instead they should turn their attention to the dependence of Punjab Police on fundamentalist Islamic groups and the implementation of the rule of law in the province. …”

On February 3, an HRCP team visited Layyah to investigate. It noted that “the circumstantial evidence prima facie failed to prove the allegation against five people.” The team observed that “even in the FIR there is only suspicion of the involvement of the accused in the crime.” The HRCP team found five Ahmadi families consisting of around 40 people ‘in utter fear’. The wife of the accused man told the HRCP team that a local shopkeeper refused to sell her grocery and told her not to visit his shop because he feared that this might put his life and property at risk. District Police Officer Muhammad Azam did not meet the HRCP team. He also did not allow the team to interview the accused. (The daily Dawn, Lahore; February 4, 2009)

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan published its fact-finding report. Excerpts:

“The local Ahmadiyya community is facing a social boycott since the incident, especially by some members of the defunct Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), recently banned Jamaat ud Da’wa (JD), and Majlis Tahaffuz Khatme Nabuwwat. … The police remain mum on these protests because those waging them enjoy the support of Iqbal Hussain Shah, uncle of Pir Saqlain Shah, MNA of the constituency. …The Imam of the local mosque Maulvi Saeed told TNS that writing graffiti on toilet walls is a norm here. …  Maulvi Saeed believes there is no eye witness of the incident. … Maulvi Saeed alleges he was forced by Shahbaz and his aids to remain absent from the scene when police was visiting the mosque where the incident took place. … According to him (the police SHO), Maulvi Kalachi (of JD) was the first person on whose complaint the FIR was registered. To the question why police was unable to handle the protestors, he expressed his helplessness. … District President PPP and Naib Nazim of the concerned Union Council Abdul Majeed Bhutta affirmed that the complainants are making a hill out of molehill. “In my personal view, it is overplayed.” … In 2004, an amendment was made in Criminal Procedural Code (CrPC) Section 295-C of the constitution according to which the police is bound to thoroughly investigate blasphemy accusations before leveling criminal charges. The aim of the amendment was to reduce the scope of the blasphemy laws which are still widely and frequently abused and often result in death penalties. But this did not happen in this case. … He (Dr Khalid Ranjha, former federal law minister) said people settle personal scores and give false testimony on these sensitive matters. He said if the state and police submit itself before propaganda, and allow mob to provoke the matter then there is no writ of the state and protection of citizens.”

In a press release on February 12, 2009, Ms Asma Jahangir, Chairperson of the HRCP declared: “The Commission demands a transparent and fair inquiry in this incident so that innocent persons do not become targets of injustice. The Commission further demands that the government must ensure the members of the Ahmadiyya faith do not feel insecure in that area and they are not harassed. The Commission appeals to the government to take appropriate steps to stop misuse of the blasphemy law.”

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), as early as January 30, 2009, issued a statement with the heading: Pakistan: Four children and one man have been arbitrarily arrested and charged with blasphemy at the request of Muslim radicals. It ended: The AHRC urges the government of President Asif Zardari to immediately release the illegally detained prisoners. Instead they should turn their attention to the dependence of Punjab Police on fundamentalist Islamic groups and the implementation of the rule of law in the province, including the amendment in the blasphemy law made by the parliament.

This incident sent a wave of anxiety in many world capitals. For instance, a number of US Congressmen wrote to the US State Department on the subject. In Europe, a question regarding this incident was tabled in the European Union Council and Commission by a Swedish MEP. The Canadian High Commission carried out its own inquiry of the case and the High Commissioner wrote a letter to the Governor of Punjab conveying his concern. The Hong Kong-based AHRC put the question bluntly: “At this juncture the AHRC would like to question who Pakistan police are meant to serve: a few civilian religious groups with little regard for the law, and an agenda of violent persecution? Or do they serve the rule of law and the people of Pakistan? Their actions and admissions in this case point to the former.” The accused later made an appeal to the relevant office of the United Nations.

On April 8, 2009 Mr. Masood Ahmad, Advocate sent a Fax message to the President of Pakistan (Mr. Asif Zardari) with a copy to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Chief Minister Punjab (Mian Shahbaz Sharif) and other concerned federal and provincial authorities requesting the release of the accused. None acknowledged the receipt of the letter.

The prestigious daily Dawn wrote in its editorial of March 4, 2009:

“The obscurantists must be tackled head on if we are to entertain any hope of redemption. If the state resorts to negotiating with militants from a position of weakness, what we will get is a disaster, across the board. The politicians need to wake-up, bury the hatchet in the national good and rout the real enemy.”

The Daily Times of January 30, 2009 quoted religious scholar Javed Ghamdi as, “the children were safer in police custody.” The learned scholar should have considered that there are other ways available to the state to protect innocent children than arresting them on charges that carry the death penalty. The police action seriously violated Article 37 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The children remained behind bars for months. Every time they appeared before a court, the police requested an extension in Judicial Remand which the courts granted. The accused thought that this was perhaps to let the extremists cool down.

Approximately four months after his taking over this case for inquiry the SP Investigation rendered his report. He took 113 days to do that as opposed to two weeks allowed under rules. However he was bold enough to conclude that: “The complainant party has failed to produce any substantial and weighty evidence in support of the FIR.” Despite this find, the authorities indicted the accused and followed up the case.

Eventually the plea for release on bail had to be taken up at session court level. Mr. Sadaqat Ullah Niazi, the Additional Session Judge Layyah, however decided to refuse the plea on June 12, 2009, despite the police finding that there was no evidence to support the prosecution story.

The FIR and the follow-up police investigation documents show that, 1) The FIR was registered on the basis of hearsay; 2) There are no witnesses, no proof that implicates the accused in this fabricated case; 3) The statements of available witnesses do not support a charge under the blasphemy clause; 4) The police report concluded that the prosecution had no evidence to support this case. So, why the indiction, and why the refusal of the bail?

Is it not incredible, that the state attorney, in these circumstances, recommended to the judge that the children’s plea for bail should be rejected? The state did not even have a case to ask for Judicial Remands during the four months.

The children continued to suffer in prison for a crime they did not commit. They had to endure the hardships of a Pakistani prison in extreme hot weather, even though they had not been tried and found guilty. Obviously the state continues to sustain and nourish extremism, despite its own suffering and agony at the hand of extremists.

At last these four Ahmadi children and one adult who had been imprisoned for nearly six months were granted bail on July 7, 2009 despite the state attorney’s opposition. They had to wait for 6 more days before they could breathe the air of freedom.

Justice Pervez Inayat of the High Court Bench at Multan granted the bail on condition of fiscal guarantee of Rs. 200,000/- being paid per person. This is a big amount for a school-going boy, living in a remote village.

During the hearing the Superintendent of Police (Investigation) Mr. Pervez Tareen made it clear that there was no evidence connecting any of the accused with the alleged crime. The same finding was offered earlier to the Sessions Judge who still decided to reject the plea for bail. It was highly improper on the part of the state attorney to oppose the bail in the sessions court after that finding.

Ordinarily, once the bail is granted by a judge, efforts are made by the near and dear ones of the accused to have him released the same day. Despite all efforts by the supporters of these five Ahmadi accused, their release was delayed far beyond normal. Although the High Court accepted the bail on July 7, the ‘decision papers’ had some error, so a correct copy became available on July 10. It was presented the very next day to Mr. Niazi the Additional Sessions Judge Layyah who, for reasons best known to him, did not sign them despite repeated reminders. The designated official thus left for D.G. Khan without the release orders for the five. The Additional Sessions Judge signed the papers late in the afternoon. The District Judge thereafter was requested to nominate a special messenger (the accused’s parents offered to pay for his travel expenses etc.) but he refused the plea. The next day was a holiday. So the release was further delayed, and the children could not be set free till July 13. How unsympathetic and unrepentant!

As the accused children are at risk, they were not taken to their village after release. The parents took them elsewhere so as to be with them without exposure to possible attack.

The children had suffered greatly during these months. It was all avoidable. The involved clerics, the politicians, the police, the administration, the lower judiciary, all played their part in hurting the innocent children. They used religion to promote their unworthy interests.

The state has not dropped the charges. The accused still face a trial. The sword of 295-C is still hanging on their heads. They are still appearing before the courts. Usually such cases take too long to come to any conclusion. After setting free they are still bound to face their trial, for how long one does not know. If declared ‘guilty’, they could be hanged. It is not at all difficult here to rent witnesses (as many as required) in support of a fictitious religious cause.

The op-ed in the Wall Street Journal of May 21, 2009 deserves serious consideration: “The Taliban cannot defeat Pakistan militarily. The Taliban will win because what they want is already being implemented in Pakistan”. If the present state is not de-facto a ‘theocracy’, what else is? Mr. Jinnah, the founding father had asserted that Pakistan will not be a theocratic state.

The authorities have learnt no lesson from Swat, Bajaur and Waziristan. Now they are committing the same mistake in the Punjab; the depth of their imprudence is unfathomable.

The trial of the innocent five continues in Multan and the accused have to present themselves in the court frequently. Despite the lack of evidence and witnesses, the state has taken on the ignoble role of prosecutor.

 

 

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