Lives And Families Ruined By Blasphemy Charges

From Dawn:
When on a sultry day in Aug 2012 Ghulam Ali Asghar, of Chinji village in Talagang tehsil, was brought to the court of the Chakwal district and sessions judge on blasphemy charges, his teenage daughter and wife were in severe distress. Tears rolled down their faces as they contemplated the future.

Asghar was jailed for 10 years by this court, but the Lahore High Court (Rawalpindi bench) set him free on Dec 18, 2015. The LHC verdict stated that he was booked merely for quoting a certain Hadith. When Asghar emerged from jail after four years, the village where he was born and brought up had become a no-go-area for him — his wife and daughter had also left him, having been convinced by local clerics that Asghar was a blasphemer. His brother, who had fought his case, had ended up in jail over the alleged murder of a local leader of the Ahle Sunnah Wal Jammat, who had reportedly played a vital role in implicating Asghar in the blasphemy case.

“I was declared guilty by the local clerics,” he recalls. A fatwa calling for his blood was issued while villagers declared a social boycott against him and his family. “Shopkeepers refused to sell to members of my family while girls in the village school were warned against speaking to my daughter, who was in Class 9 at the time.”

His trial could not take place in Talagang due to the uneasy environment — on the date of the hearing, hordes of clerics and their followers descended on the court. The case was referred to Chakwal, but the experience was no different. In Oct 2012, a judge in Chakwal, who was hearing the case, wrote a letter to the LHC requesting that the case be referred to another district, but the LHC refused.

Asghar pleaded not guilty, but on Jan 8, 2013, an additional district and sessions judge (ADSJ) jailed him for 10 years under the charge of Section 295-A (enraging religious feelings) while acquitting him of charges under Section 295-C (the use of derogatory words against the Holy Prophet [PBUH]) and Section 298-A (the use of derogatory words against holy personages).

The judgement did not go down well. The complainant filed an appeal before the LHC (Rawalpindi bench) in which he pleaded that the ADSJ judgement be set aside and the convict be sentenced to death under Section 295-C. This was the first-ever appeal of its kind filed before the LHC.

Asghar also filed an appeal before the LHC and on Dec 18, 2015, the LHC acquitted him. Fifteen months have now passed, but Asghar still feels insecure. “I fear going to my village,” he says. “I had to sell my agricultural land there and move to another place.”

He now lives in a rented house far away from his village. “I was implicated in a false case that has shattered my life and my family,” he retraces his ordeal. His major concern currently is his younger brother who, along with three other associates, is facing a murder charge.

Sufi Mohammad Ishaq (68), a former employee of the Foreign Office, became a follower of Pir Afzal Shah of Talagang (Ishaq’s native town), while he was young. When he was posted at the UN in 1979, he settled in the United States and married an American national of Pakistan origin. He established an Islamic Centre in the US that preached Sufism. Meanwhile, he kept his links with the Talagang shrine alive, and was later made its custodian. Every year, Ishaq would come to Pakistan to participate in the Urs.

But he was unaware of the malice being cooked up against him. The grandsons of Pir Afzal Shah were jealous of his popularity while some clerics were hostile to him because they considered rituals such as the qawwali and dhammal unacceptable.

In July 2009, Ishaq came to Talagang to attend the Urs. When he reached the shrine, his followers displayed their obeisance — which was caught on camera. Hardline clerics in Talagang took it as an opportunity to eliminate Ishaq.

They came up with an allegation that Ishaq was presenting himself as a deity. Processions were taken out against him and inflammatory speeches delivered during Friday sermons. Ishaq was booked under blasphemy charges. A judge in Chakwal who heard his case expressed his inability to announce the verdict and requested the LHC to transfer the case.

In 2012, a judge from Jhelum sentenced Ishaq to death. His counsel filed an appeal before the LHC’s Rawalpindi bench in February 2012. On Feb 24 this year, a division bench comprising two judges set Ishaq free, deeming him innocent.

“I languished in jail for eight years,” Ishaq told Dawn. He is now unwilling to visit Talagang and lives far away. “Religion in Pakistan has been hijacked,” he says.

The two verdicts by the LHC serve as an eye-opener as to how the blasphemy laws are misused. According to data obtained by Dawn from the National Commission for Justice and Peace, 40 persons accused of blasphemy are currently either on death row or serving life terms, while 65 individuals — including Mashal Khan — accused of blasphemy have been extra-judicially killed since 1987.

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