Authorities this week charged and jailed a Christian accused of blasphemy by Muslim business competitors, and police beat area Christians in their search for him, sources said.
Jamshed Masih told Morning Star News that local Muslims had entrapped his brother, 35-year-old Pervaiz Masih, in a false blasphemy case after he obtained a sand contract in Garra village, near Mandi Usmanwala in Kasur District, Punjab Province.
"We were unaware of the incident until the local Muslims, led by the village mosque's Pesh Imam [prayer leader], started propagating on Tuesday [Sept. 1] that Masih had blasphemed against Islam's prophet Muhammad during a discussion with some Muslims a couple of weeks ago," Jamshed Masih said, adding that some 300 to 400 Muslims of the village and surrounding areas shouted chants against the Christians and vowed to avenge alleged "disrespect" of their prophet by burning his brother alive.
He said that Pervaiz Masih had obtained a contract for sand from a local dealer at a better price than that of his Muslim competitors, Haji Muhammad Jamshed and Haji Muhammad Bashir, and that since then they had nurtured a grudge against him. Jamshed and Bashir on Tuesday (Sept. 1) began spreading word that Pervaiz Masih had disrespected Muhammad, he said.
"A large number of Muslims gathered in the village and demanded Pervaiz be handed over to them," he said. "However, we were able to move him to a safer location while the rest of us engaged the protesting mob in talks to settle the matter amicably."
The mob agreed to allow Pervaiz Masih to give his version of the dispute, he said, "but later in the evening a contingent of local police raided our homes, thrashed our women and took two of my brothers with them when they were unable to find Pervaiz there."
The accused Christian's employer, owner of a brick kiln, the next day informed Jamshed and other Muslims that he had made Pervaiz Masih surrender to police, who immediately charged and jailed him to appease the Muslim mob and relieve pressure on them from various Islamist quarters, Masih's brother said.
He said the entire family had been forced to flee the village due to fear of revenge attacks, "as the Muslims had said that they would treat them in the same manner as Christians of Lahore's Youhanabad area who had lynched and burned alive two Muslims" wrongly suspected of involvement in twin suicide attacks on two churches on March 15.
There are about 15-20 Christian families in Garra village, most of which till lands of local Muslims.
Police Brutalize Christians
A pregnant mother and a woman who gave birth to a girl by Caesarean section eight days prior were among victims of police brutality, sources said.
Police beat female relatives of Pervaiz Masih and other Christians in their search for him, said his wife, Zarina Bibi. The mother of four children, the oldest 9 and the youngest 7 months old, told Morning Star News that officers kicked family members and struck them with their fists and batons.
"The police just wouldn't listen to our pleas that we did not know Masih's whereabouts," she said. "They searched all Christian houses in the village and tortured everyone they came across."
A pregnant mother in the village whose name is withheld for security reasons said police tore into her Christian family without hesitation.
"They cursed and abused us, and they kicked us in our abdomens and backs regardless of age or gender," she said. "They did not even spare the children. At first I thought that I was going to lose my child, but thank God it is safe."
She added that officers reviled the Christians for their faith.
"The police are supposed to protect the helpless, but they treated us as if we were all hardened criminals," she said.
Another Christian woman in the village said officers did not spare her newborn daughter.
"I had a Caesarean last week, and my newborn daughter is just 8 days old," she said. "I begged the police not to beat me, but they turned a deaf ear to my pleas and even hit my daughter during the attack. They just kept asking for Pervaiz Masih and would not listen to any of us."
Attorney Aneeqa Maria, whose human rights group The Voice Society reached the village on Tuesday night (Sept. 1), confirmed that area Christians had been subjected to police brutality.
"Every Christian we met at Garra village had a similar story to tell us," she told Morning Star News. "They were all tortured by the police for no reason other than that they are poor Christians who cannot fend for themselves."
Police stopped The Voice Society team at a gas station as they were returning to Lahore that night for two hours and pressured them to reveal Pervaiz Masih's whereabouts, she said.
"I told the police team's head that they could not transgress their legal domain by holding us in captivity, but they would not listen," she said. "We were able to return to Lahore after our friends in the media built pressure on the police to let us go."
Maria said that The Voice Society would care for Masih's family and defend him in court.
"The FIR [First Information Report] of the alleged incident clearly shows malice of the complainants, but it is the police's attitude towards the Christians there that is more appalling and a serious concern to us," she said.
Kasur District Senior Superintendent of Police Chief Saeed Ali said by phone said that he had taken notice of allegations of police torturing the Christian families and ordered an investigation, even as Christians suspected his officers of torturing Masih into confessing.
"Torturing innocent people is an inhuman and illegal act and cannot be condoned under any circumstances," Ali said regarding the officers who sought Masih. "The department will ensure that such policemen are held accountable for misusing their legal authority."
Ali claimed that Masih had confessed to committing blasphemy.
"Masih has been sent to Kasur District Jail after he confessed to the charges brought against him," said the police chief.
Pakistani police routinely extract confessions from suspects through torture. Lahore High Court attorney Chaudhry Shoaib Salim told Morning Star News that the police system was not only obsolete but corrupt.
"Torture is the only way many police officials know of extracting a confession," he said. "They don't care about whether it is true or not."
In most blasphemy and other cases, he said, police coerce the accused through threats and torture to admit to charges if they want to save their lives.
"It's tragic, though, that another member of the Christian minority community has fallen victim to the blasphemy law, which is often used to settle personal scores," he said, pointing out how hastily police had registered the case under mob pressure. "I doubt that the police even bothered to investigate the charges against Pervaiz Masih before registering the case against him. This is sheer injustice with the victim and the community at large."
Police chief Ali said Masih's life would have been in danger if he had not been quickly arrested and kept in custody. He said he had ordered the release of Masih's brothers, who had been taken into custody the night of the incident.
Pervaiz Masih's wife said her husband makes little income working at a brick kiln in the village and traded in sand and soil for extra income. She recalled the case of Shama and Shahzad Masih, a young Christian couple who worked at a brick kiln in Kot Radha Kishan in Raiwind, also in Kasur District. A Muslim mob killed them and threw them into the furnace of a brick kiln on false charges of blasphemy last year.
"He occasionally trades in sand and soil to make extra money for the family, but his part-time business has now put his and our lives in danger," Bibi said. "I just hope and pray that my husband is not killed for a crime he could not have possibly committed, because we all know what happened to Shama and Shahzad Masih."