Imprisonment for life to Ahmadi on false charge of blasphemy
District Faisalabad; Sajjad Hussain Sindher, Additional Session Judge, Faisalabad sentenced Mr. Muhammad Iqbal, Ahmadi of Chak No. 227/GB Faisalabad, Punjab to imprisonment for life and Rs. 10,000 fine under the dreaded Blasphemy clause PPC 295C on November 29, 2004. The accused is required to serve additional six months in prison if he does not pay the fine. The accused is now serving the sentence in the Central Jail at Faisalabad.
This is an important case in the sense that in some ways it is typical, and its essential details expose the wrong of the Blasphemy laws in Pakistan and also it shows how the corrupt in the society use these laws to inflict great misery and harm on innocent people against whom they have personal vendetta to settle or other reasons that have no relevance to the alleged blasphemy.
Chak No. 227/GB is a typical village in the Central Punjab. Most of its residents are half-educated peasants, financially at the border-line. They are contended to be Muslims without having any in-depth knowledge of their faith, and while some of them perform the routine rituals, there are few who are aware of the higher values of Islam, and perhaps none who would risk his personal interest to uphold the great ideals and teachings of his professed faith.
Muhammad Iqbal son of a farmer Faquir Muhammad, approximately 20 years old in 1990, heard about Ahmadiyya understanding of Islam, got interested and made some serious inquiries. He was impressed. Exercising his birth-right of ‘freedom of faith’ he joined the Ahmadiyya Community. Soon he learnt that fundamental rights are highly controversial in the society here, and he faced great opposition from his own family and also the local mullah. He bore the brunt of opposition courageously for a while, but then, lone and without any meaningful support, he left the village and went to far-off Bahawalpur in the south of Punjab, and took up a petty job to support himself. After a while, he got married to his cousin, Tahira in March 2001 and stayed on in Bahawalpur. A few years later, the couple decided to go back to Iqbal’s village where they could share the hereditary house and the land, and Iqbal could perhaps look for a better job at the industrial city of Faisalabad. At Chak 227/GB they found that the prejudice and ill-feeling against his Ahmadiyyat had not dwindled, in fact increased due to the malign legacy of General Zia and the promotion of religious extremism. The local mullah, a fake man of piety, had become more intolerant and rabid. His family and the village folk had become more rigid in their religious outlook and more vocal in confessional passions.
Hafiz Zulfiquar Ali, the imam of the nearby mosque claims to be a Sunni. He is illiterate; he can hardly read, and write nothing. Still, as representative of the faith, he exercises undeserved influence over his flock. The mullah approached Iqbal’s father and brothers and told them that it was licit for them neither to share a meal with Iqbal nor to have social dealings with him of any kind, and they should expel him from home. This created a problem in the family. There were arguments and counter arguments. Adjustments within the family were made, and then broken. The argument that Iqbal’s creed, the Kalima, was no different than that of the rest, was rejected by the mullah, who insisted on more recent edicts of present-day ulema and demanded that Iqbal recant and revert to the way of the majority. Iqbal refused to do that. So there was great tension and stress in the family. His father turned against him, as also other relatives. They all demanded of him to divorce his wife and marry his aunt’s daughter. Life turned sour in the Chak.
On the afternoon of March 23, 2004 Mr. Iqbal proceeded out of home for some errand and came across the mullah at the village square. The mullah asked Iqbal to accompany him to his mosque for a word. In the mosque there was nobody else at the time. There, Zulfiquar Ali told him to discard ‘Mirzaiyat’ as it was ‘Kufr’ (infidelity), and revert to the Islam of the majority. Iqbal refused and there was an argument. The mullah was greatly annoyed at Iqbal’s refusal, felt personally insulted, and eventually told Iqbal to get out, and threatened him with appropriate action and harm (tumhara koi bandobast karta hun). Iqbal left the place. It seems that the mullah, soon afterwards met his acolytes and they all jointly conspired and agreed on a plan of vicious action. Someone, later on claimed to have advised the mullah, “Accuse him (of blasphemy) so that it would stick with him for ever” (Woh ilzam lagao, jis se uski jan hi na choote). So the mullah switched on the mosque sound amplifier and gave the rallying call to the neighborhood that the great crime of blasphemy against the Holy Prophet had been committed and all the faithful should immediately assemble at the mosque. He made the call repeatedly.
It did not take long for the crowd to assemble. The villagers were armed with sticks and sharp-edged weapons. They were fed with the false allegation to agitate them. Mushtaq, a non-Ahmadi, but a sympathetic brother of Iqbal realized the gravity of the developments and went to the mosque. There he offered unconditional apology for all that had happened, for what was said and also not-said. This calmed down most of the crowd, but some miscreants who had decided upon punishing Iqbal for his Ahmadiyyat put forward two conditions for Iqbal, 1) he should recite the Kalima to proclaim Islam, and 2) quit Jamaat Ahmadiyya. They were told that Iqbal would recite the Kalima but not forego Ahmadiyyat. The mullah and his supporters refused to accept that, and decided to go ahead with their plan.
It was sunset time that the fanatics proceeded to the police station. They were in sufficient numbers to impress the SHO who thought it convenient and exigent to proceed as the crazies wanted him. Rather than telling them frankly that justice would be done after due inquiry by him, he provided the mullah with office stationery to job down his complaint. The mullah stated in his complaint (and this was recorded in the FIR) that “(Iqbal) suddenly came over to me in the mosque courtyard, and asked me forthwith, ‘what is your faith’; I told him that I believe in Oneness of Allah and in Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and also in saints (pirs aur faqirs). He also asked about Hadrat Isa (AS) and I told him ‘go to a religious scholar, if you have a problem of understanding, he will solve it for you’. At this the named Iqbal said, ‘your Prophet is false’. These words were heard, apart from me, by two others present in the mosque, Nazar Hussain and Ali Ahmad. We tried to grab him, but he succeeded in fleeing.” The illiterate mullah could not sign his own statement, so put his thumb impression on it. Having received this senseless and incoherent tale, the SHO proceeded to appoint one of his subordinates, an assistant sub-inspector (ASI), a petty official to investigate this case of great import. He did this despite the fact that some years ago the government had announced that in view of the gravity of the offence of blasphemy and its consequent penalty, only a District Magistrate would hold the inquiry into the incident. A couple hours later the police arrived in the village. Mr. Iqbal, on getting the news that an FIR had been registered under PPC 295C, for which the penalty is death, and the villagers having become a menacing bunch, went into hiding. The police willingly accepted the statement of the two false witnesses of the mullah, although not even one of them was present in the mosque at the time of the row. The case was registered in FIR 73/04 at Police Station Tarkhani, district Faisalabad on March 23, 2004, the Republic Day of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Copy of the FIR and its translation is available here.
A few days later, Mr. Iqbal approached an attorney in Faisalabad and arranged a ‘bail before arrest’. The judge granted it provisionally. At the time of confirmation of the bail, the accused submitted an affidavit that 1) the allegations contained in the FIR are absolutely incorrect, 2) he is a follower of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The state prosecutor opposed the bail application. The judge wrote in his decision that as the accused was an Ahmadi, he found Iqbal’s affidavit (concerning his faith in the Holy Prophet) useless. This intellectual lightweight wrote piously and rather childishly, “No Muslim can involve another Muslim in the case of blasphemy falsely as the word written in the application cannot be written by a real Muslim regarding Holy Prophet with malafide”. Thus he refused to confirm the bail. Mr. Muhammad Iqbal was arrested and locked behind bars for an offense he would not even think of committing. At this stage and also in the following weeks Iqbal was offered by his opponents that if he withdrew from Ahmadiyyat, they would withdraw the case.
The Ahmadiyya Community assessed rightly that Mr. Iqbal was badly trapped in this fabricated case of blasphemy, so they hired a lawyer of high standing to defend him in the court. The trial went on for months while the accused remained in prison. His family deserted him; none visited him in the prison except one of his brothers. His pregnant wife left the village to be with her aunt for the delivery. Also, she was afraid that she might be harassed by the police, in case Iqbal decided to go into hiding. She delivered a son in the early days of their ordeal, and named him Aamir Iqbal.
During the last nine months of his incarceration, Tahira has been able to see her husband in prison only once. The procedure to visit a prisoner is so cumbersome for a woman that it is more of a deterrent, and hardly worth the effort. Iqbal could get only a glimpse of his baby son across the wire-meshed window of the prison verandah. For no fault of the couple, she has become virtually a single-parent to the suckling who has been wrongfully deprived by the society of paternal love, care and support. Tahira, only 22 years old, looks much older on account of her agony, worry and stress of the past months. She talks fondly of her husband whom she describes as a good and truthful man and a caring husband. When asked about her difficulties subsequent to the incident of 23rd March, she started shedding tears and could control herself with difficulty. She was afraid that her statement might go to press and she may have to face more problems from her relations and the villagers. She has lost her bread-winner; the village has no salaried job for a woman, so she is now dependant on community support.
The trial lasted eight months. The trial judge, Mr. Sindher occasionally dropped hints that caused worry to the defense team. He mentioned more than once that the only penalty for the offense of blasphemy is death. He said so despite the reminder from the defense that life imprisonment was also available as alternative. There was an interesting development in the trial that Nazar Hussain, one of the only two witnesses claimed by the complainant to be present at the occasion, was not brought to the court to testify. It is learnt that on learning that he will have to make his statement after affirmation on the Holy Quran he decided not to support the fiction of blasphemy. He told the people, “I was not present there; and I am accountable to Allah for what I say. I am afraid to make a false statement.” So the prosecuting team decided to drop him. The other ‘eye-witness’ took the plea in the village that ‘although I was not present at the scene, whatever the Hafiz Sahib (Zulfiquar Ali) says must be right; after all he is our Maulvi’. So Ali Ahmad fired his shots from the shoulder of the mullah, and told the lie to the court. As far the mullah, he also thinks that he is on a safe wicket with his God because there are numerous edicts available to him that permit falsehood in support of a religious cause. We produce here just two of such concocted latter-day edicts that serve to add to the darkness of obscurants’ mind: 1) In answer to a question, Alhajj Al Hafiz Rashid Ahmad Gangohi replied, “Falsehood is permitted in support of the truth (Haq); however avoid it as far as possible; but if unavoidable, one may tell a plain lie (kizbe sareeh bole); or else abstain. Sincerely, Rashid Ahmad Ofeya Anhu”. (Ref: Fatawa Rashidia Kamel Mubawwah p.460; published by Muhammad Saeed and Sons. Quran Mahal, Muqabal Maulvi Musafar Khana, Karachi). Subsequently, the renowned Abul Ala Maudoodi, founder of Jamaat Islami supported the above edict in his own words thus: “Truthfulness and integrity are among the most important principles of Islam, and a lie is most despicable in its code; however, there are compulsions of practical life for which falsehood is not only permissible, even considered mandatory (wujub) under certain circumstances”. (Ref: Syed Abul Ala Maudoodi, p. 41 of Tarjuman ul Quran, May 1958). In plain language, these ‘divines’ have opened a vast green channel for one and all of their followers who want to support a religious cause with utter falsehood. Well, with such authorities’ support on his back, who can blame minions like Hafiz Zulfiquar Ali of Chak 227/GB? And where is the hope for innocent people like Muhammad Iqbal, who live under the Damocles sword of PPC 295C over their heads? No wonder Bishop John Joseph committed suicide in 1998 in front of the court of a Sessions Judge in Sahiwal to protest the situation in Pakistan regarding Blasphemy.
Mr. Sindher, the Additional Session Judge, Faisalabad, the trial judge gave himself the liberty to disregard all these factors. He went outside the parameters of judicial propriety when one day he decided to hear advocate Rab Nawaz who is a rabid anti-Ahmadiyya lawyer. It happened on September 28, 2004. When the defense team entered the court room that day, it was surprised to see Rab Nawaz giving some arguments to Judge Sindher in this very case. They had no prior knowledge of his involvement in this case. He was talking about the incident of Sir Zafrulla Khan (Ahmadi) not joining with the Janaza(funeral) prayer of the Quaid-e-Azam in 1948. The defense submitted to the court their objection to the presence in the court of this person who was neither a party to the case, nor a witness, nor an authorized attorney with ‘Wakalat Nama’ the Power of Attorney. In fact, this was the first time Rab Nawaz had come to the court, and the judge should have demanded from him the ‘power of attorney’. On hearing the objection, Rab Nawaz immediately borrowed a blank sheet from the judge and, there and then, hurriedly wrote in manuscript a memo to the judge to accept his presence in the court on behalf of the plaintiff who was away in Mianwali and had asked Rab Nawaz on phone to represent him. Rab Nawaz volunteered to bring up the Power of Attorney at the next hearing. He has not presented it ever since.
As the incident was in utter violation of court procedure and rules and the defense team became greatly suspicious of the impartiality of the judge, it requested the judge to stay the proceedings, as the defense was going to request the higher court to transfer the case to some other court under the circumstances. Rab Nawaz, at this stage, suggested to the judge that the defense had been guilty of ‘contempt of court’. Anyway the judge had to stop the proceedings.
Thereafter, the defense approached the High Court to transfer the case to some other judge. The High Court did not accept the request. So Judge Sindher held a few more hearings and announced his verdict. A description of the announcement of his decision and providing a copy of his judgment to the accused/his lawyer is also fit for mention in dispatches and record.
The judge announced his decision in the court at about 1445hr on November 29, 2004, in the absence of the accused. The accused was not called to the court on the excuse that his presence would have exposed him to risk, as a number of supporters of the prosecution were expected to be present at courts premises at the occasion. That makes some sense but it does not reflect well on the performance of authorities who are responsible to maintain law and order in the courts’ area. As per procedure and law, the judge is required to give a copy of the judgment to the accused. He did not do so, that day, nor the next day. In the meantime, Mr Iqbal was transferred to the Central Jail. The defense team thereafter presented itself in Mr Sindher’s court on December 4 and requested for a copy. The judge said that the ‘judgment’ was being edited; it would definitely be given on December 6. However the defense was not provided the document even on that day. So the team presented itself again before the judge on December 7; the judge told the advocates that, ‘the judgment still needs my signature, tomorrow you will get its copy’. The team went again to the judge on December 8 who told them that they were the first ones to ask for such a copy; however ‘apply for it and get it’. The team told him that they had already applied for it. The judge told them to bring an authorization. This time Mr Sindher told them that he would send the ‘judgment’ to the Superintendent of the prison for handing it over to the prisoner. To their protest the judge replied that only in serious cases, like death punishment, the judgment is supposed to be given to the accused at the time of announcement. (Mr Sindher was wrong, as per law.) Another six days passed and no copy of judgment was made available. Eventually it was on December 18 that a copy was provided by the Superintendent of the prison. This was 20 days after it was required to be given as per CCP 371. In fact, Judge Sajjad Hussain Sindher has sentenced an innocent man to imprisonment for life, by giving undue weightage to witnesses who merit nothing but contempt and rejection, and by neglecting credible and powerful arguments of the defense; this is the reason of his erratic behavior and commission of many blunders and muddles which will be brought forth at an appropriate occasion and place.
Mr Iqbal when told of the verdict took it with calm and dignity; he referred to the case of Hadrat Yusuf (Prophet Joseph) who had to suffer a prison sentence for years although he was innocent. The BBC mentioned his case and its outcome in some detail on its website BBC.com on 29 November 2004. Back in the village it is rather calm now, and villagers seem to have decided not to talk about the incident. Perhaps they feel a collective guilt that they have wronged an innocent man. The hostile relatives appear to feel sorry for their wicked and corrupt part in the incident. This, of course, is of little consolation to Muhammad Iqbal.
Mr. Iqbal’s case proves conclusively once again that:
a) Even at village level, some people know that the Blasphemy laws exist, and these can be used to grievously harm an opponent by fabricating an accusation.
b) Religious lobby wields undeserved power through its ability to invoke these laws.
c) Edicts by mullahs of authority are available to encourage witnesses to give false evidence in courts.
d) The police, administration and judiciary are reluctant to uphold fairness and justice when confronted with situations arising out of the application of these laws.
The Blasphemy laws PPC 295C and 295B are like that subsystem of nature which is red in tooth and claw. These are convenient tools in the hands of religious bullies and bigots. These promote injustice; and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. These are skeletons rattling in our national cupboards; they must be dumped without delay. The government is wrong in turning a Nelson’s eye to these cases. These laws have nothing to do with true Islam (they are not mentioned, not even hinted in the Quran); they only betray Pakistan’s unenviable tilt to medieval and extremist Islam. Petty amendments, like senior police officers doing the inquiry, are not the answer to this problem. The laws must be repealed entirely and summarily. They have brought no good to Pakistani society in the last eighteen years of their existence since the unlovely regime of General Zia. In fact they have done great harm already, and will continue to do so with every passing day that they remain in force.