Younis Masih lives in constant fear at the Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore. He is accused under section 295(c) of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) for blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH*). If convicted, Masih could face death penalty. But he is under threat of being killed in judicial custody even before the trial ends.
His lawyer, Pervez Aslam Choudhry, has also been receiving anonymous phone calls threatening him for representing a blasphemy accused. "I made a verbal request to the court at the last hearing on April 14, 2006, to allow Masih's trial to be held in the jail as his life was not safe outside. I also informed the court about the death threats that my wife and I have been receiving since I took up this case," he says. Looking at past incidents at Kot Lakhpat and its notoriety, Choudhry has also requested the court to shift Masih to the Camp Jail in Lahore.
The trial of a person facing charges under the Blasphemy laws augurs extreme danger for both accused and the counsel. Under Section 295(c), applying specifically to insults to Islam, the Prophet, his companions and family members, a person convicted faces the death penalty.
The dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq was marked by the tightening of the Blasphemy laws, with new sections on religious offences being added to the PPC. In 1980, 298(a) was inserted, making the use of derogatory remarks against persons revered in Islam an offence. In 1982, Section 295(b) was added, expanding the maximum punishment for defiling the Quran to life imprisonment. But it was the Federal Shariat Court - a parallel legal body that reviews laws to ensure conformity to the Islamic doctrine - which ruled in October 1990 that anyone convicted of blasphemy under section 295(c) should face death penalty.
This court was set up during Haq's regime in the early 1980s and its rulings are binding on high courts and lower courts. The 11 years that he spent manipulating Islam to validate his regime had a devastating effect on the country's legal system. Even when martial law was lifted and elections held in 1986, his handpicked government approved all the laws and amendments made to the Constitution. The Eighth Constitutional Amendment ensured that laws and orders passed during the martial law, including the Blasphemy laws, were exempt from judicial review.
Severely criticized by minorities and human rights activists, it is believed the Blasphemy laws serve no purpose other than to provoke discrimination. At times, these laws are used for personal vendetta amongst various feuding parties. Younis Masih, a Christian, is a victim of such vendetta, claims his wife.
Relating the incident leading to Younis Masih's arrest, his wife, Parveen, looks disoriented, as if trying to make sense of it all. Masih and his family lived in a two-room house in Amar Sadhu, Factory Area, Lahore. He made his living painting people's houses.
On September 9, 2005, a huge gathering of people living in Amar Sadhu were listening to the weekly Thursday event of qawalis organized by Baba Chabba. "Baba Chabba is a well known person here. He has a huge following and is like a pir," explains Parveen. In the middle of the qawali, Younis got up to ask Baba Chabba if he knew who Punjtan Pak (the term denotes the Prophet's two grandchildren, his son-in-law and daughter Hazrat Fatima) were. "Baba Chabba and some of his followers became angry and a fight started," relates Parveen. The next evening an FIR was lodged against Younis Masih by Hafiz Abdul Aziz, Baba Chabba's friend, under Section 295(c).
"Blasphemy laws are used against innocent people to settle disputes. Why would a Christian living in an Islamic state pass derogatory remarks about the Holy Prophet?" asks Choudhry. He says the case against his client was registered without basis and was a violation of Section 196 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which calls for a thorough investigation of a case by police before apprehending the accused.
Statistics provided by the National Commission for Peace and Justice, an NGO, show that among the 280 blasphemy cases registered from 1987 to August 2004, at least 151 (54 per cent) were by Muslims against fellow Muslims, regardless of sect; 59 cases were registered against the Ahmadis (in 1974, the Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims by a constitutional amendment); 65 cases against Christians; and five cases against Hindus. In a majority of blasphemy cases under trial during 2004, both the accused and complainants were Muslims. In 2004, 14 cases registered under blasphemy were against Muslims, seven against Ahmadis and two against Christians.
That said, once the cases are registered, the minorities have a much tougher time. And Kot Lakhpat Jail has a particularly bad record. Since 1992, six Christians accused of blasphemy have been killed in judicial custody at the jail. The first to fall victim to the jail authorities' prejudice was Tahir Iqbal, a 33-year-old Christian paraplegic. Unidentified assailants murdered him on July 20, 1992, when he was in judicial lock-up awaiting trial.
The second was Naimat Ahmar, murdered on January 6, 1992. In the same year, Bantu Masih, 80, was stabbed by his accuser when the two men were in the police station for questioning. In April 1994, the assassination of Manzoor Masih, killed behind the Lahore High Court, left many wondering about the complicity of the police and their lack of action in cases of blasphemy. In May 2004, Javed Anjum, 18, was the fifth to die with the full knowledge of police. And the most recent case of a Christian killed in judicial custody is that of Samuel Masih, who also died in May 2004.
"How can the minorities expect fair treatment when the jail authorities are brutal with every prisoner, even Muslims, and there is no one to question their authority?" asks Saleem Sylvester, president of the Christian Organization for Human Rights. The answer is as difficult as the reformation of the infamous jail.
These are not isolated cases. Discriminatory treatment of Christians and other minority sects has become a regular feature at the Kot Lakhpat jail. "I don't understand why janitorial work should be given only to Christians. Is that not discrimination? There's no preacher for them and neither are they given a remission of six months for learning the Bible by heart, which Muslims are granted for learning the Quran," questions Choudhry.
Meanwhile, the Lahore High Court has rejected Younis Masih's bail application. The trial, though, will be conducted in jail, and the Shalimar police have been instructed to provide the defense counsel with protection.
(* PBUH - Peace Be Upon Him.
This phrase is always added to the name of the Prophet as a mark of respect)