No justice for Pakistan's Christian minority
Mob attackers walking free reflects a 'bigoted society'
Catholics pray at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore on March 22, 2015 for a service for victims of church attacks that killed 17 that year. In 2014, a Christian community in the city was ransacked over allegations that a Christian made a blasphemous comment. (Photo by Arif Ali/AFP)
On March 9, 2013 more than 200 houses in Joseph Colony, a Christian neighborhood in Pakistan's second largest city Lahore, were attacked, looted and burnt by a mob of about 3,000 Muslims.
The mob ransacked the Christian colony with complete impunity, setting fire to houses and burning them down completely as a heavy police force looked on.
An accusation of blasphemy led to the assault which is hardly surprising given the history of mob violence in this deeply conservative Islamic country.
According to a fact-finding report by Pakistan's independent human rights commission, on March 6, a quarrel broke out between Shahid Imran, a Muslim barber, and his Christian friend, Sawan Masih Alias Bodhi while they were drinking together. At the end of the fight, Imran alleged that Sawan made blasphemous remarks.
Sawan was subsequently arrested on March 8 and charged with blasphemy.
Zahida Parveen, a relative of Sawan, told Pakistan's human rights commission that, on the eve of the mob violence, the local police told the Christian community to vacate their houses. The police also assured them of the safety of their houses and their belongings. Almost the entire community evacuated the colony on Friday after the police warning.
As per the warning, thousands of Islamic zealots ransacked the colony and the whole incident was covered live by news channels. According to the rights commission, there was nothing to suggest that the mob was in any way resisted by the police.
After a mission to Joseph Colony, the rights commission held the police and the provincial administration squarely responsible for the horrible affair.
At least 131 people were taken into custody on suspicion of involvement in the violence with the help of CCTV evidence.
Spokesperson for Punjab Government, Pervez Rasheed said that those involved in the incident would be tried under tough anti-terror laws.
One year later, on March 30, 2014, Masih was convicted and sentenced to death for making derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad. On the other hand, the trial of the assailants went on for four years at a snail's pace and the outcome shocked the minority community.
Citing lack of evidence, an anti-terrorism court acquitted all 115 people charged with burning the Christian houses. It is noteworthy that all the assailants were already out on bail.
"This is quiet upsetting. Basically this means that despite video footage, documentaries and pictures of thousands rampaging through Christian properties, the court has not found anyone involved. So mobs are free to do whatever they want," Cecil Shane Chaudhry, executive director of the Catholic bishop's Justice and Peace Commission told ucanews.com after the verdict.
"Perhaps the police are not rounding up the right people. Also, there is community-based pressure on lower courts. If there was no substantial evidence, the high court should have accepted the bail of Sawan Masih," he added.
The outcome of the Joseph Colony case is a sad but true reflection of a bigoted society. One can imagine the pain the vulnerable minorities in Pakistan must have felt over the verdict.
While the Christian man was handed the harshest sentence on mere allegations, scores of people caught on camera looting, attacking and burning minority houses walked free. And there is little to suggest that the Punjab authorities have any intention of challenging the ruling in the high court.
Sadly, the Pakistani authorities refuse to learn that this cycle of violence against minorities will end only if the perpetrators are brought to justice.
Zahid Hussain is a Pakistani journalist covering human rights and issues affecting minorities.
Cultural center keeps alive traditional arts and culture of tribal people in Odisha state
Female politicians travel to former warzone to meet women but only spoke to a tiny fraction of the turnout
Thousands throng streets of Philippine capital to protest government's handling of housing policy
Sister Rani Maria Vattalil died of multiple knife wounds for helping the poor
Hoa Hao Buddhists go on hunger strike to protest police harassment