Islamists Get Minority Rights Leader Jailed in Pakistan

LAHORE, Pakistan (Compass Direct News) – Well-known Pakistani minority rights activist Joseph Francis and two others were jailed on Sunday (July 12) for forged documents in connection with false charges of assaulting a woman who visited his office in 2006, their lawyers said.

Francis, national director of the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), which for more than two decades has defended Christians and others against spurious charges by Islamists, was arrested on Thursday (July 9) along with CLAAS official Ashar Sarfaraz and Sarfaraz's brother-in-law, Zulfiqar Wilson.

Judge Malik Muhammad Mushataq remanded all three to two days of police custody under pressure from Islamists who have harassed Francis and the other two men with false accusations, CLAAS lawyers said, and on Sunday a magistrate sent them to jail to await trial.

"This is the first time in my 19 years of work that I have been so set up by the judicial system," said one of Francis' lawyers, Akbar Munawar Durrani. "The judge was blind to the facts presented before him."

The lawyer told Compass that the court did not listen to their arguments for releasing Francis as it was biased toward the Islamists who have urged the woman to charge the CLAAS officials with assault. In December 2006 CLAAS officers had counseled the woman, identified only as Roma, when her Christian family brought her to the CLAAS office after she converted to Islam.

"She was brought to us because she had converted to Islam, and her parents wanted us to explain to her the consequences and implication of doing so," said CLAAS Program Officer Katherine Sapna.

The woman had changed her name to Aisha and had married Mehboob Basharat, a Muslim who had converted to Christianity and then "reverted" back to Islam. CLAAS lawyers said that Basharat, whom police describe as "fraudulent," along with an Islamist group and a church-going lawyer at odds with the local Christian community, are behind the assault charges officially filed by Roma/Aisha.

Francis and the two others are in Camp Jail in Lahore; today a judge denied their plea for release on bail. CLAAS lawyers said they expect to file for bail in Sessions Court this week.

Francis is charged with forging documents in the 2007 case in which he and the two others are accused of beating Roma/Aisha, "misbehaving" with her and setting her on fire, lawyers said. The forgery charges arose, said Sapna, after two former CLAAS staff members submitted a fake medical certificate indicating that Francis was too ill to appear at court on July 14, 2007 for a hearing on the assault charges.

Francis was out of the country at the time of the hearing and was not aware that the two CLAAS staff members, Justin Gill and Aneeqa Maria, had submitted the false medical certificate, Sapna said. Both Gill and Maria have since left CLAAS.

Assault Charges

Sapna told Compass that the Christian parents of the woman then known as Roma brought her to CLAAS offices on Dec. 23, 2006. Roma's mother, Shamim Bibi, and sisters Shabana and Taskeen, were with her at the CLAAS office, where all three spent the night at CLAAS's second-floor shelter for abuse victims, Sapna said.

Roma/Aisha's husband called police the next day, and officers ordered her family to bring her to the Race Course Police Station, Sapna said. Christmas was near and most of the CLAAS staff members were gone for the holiday, so Francis himself went to the police station. When police questioned Roma/Aisha, she never mentioned being mistreated while in the CLAAS offices, Sapna said.

CLAAS staff members forgot the matter until Basharat and church-going attorney Raja Nathaniel Gill held a press conference on Feb. 18, 2007 in which they had Roma/Aisha claim that she had been attacked at the CLAAS office. In May 2007 Basharat, Gill and the Islamist group had her file a First Information Report (FIR) at Ichhra police station charging that during her stay at CLAAS, staff members beat her, forced her to revert to Christianity, doused her with kerosene oil and set her ablaze inside a locked room.

Sapna said Roma/Aisha's FIR also claimed Church of Pakistan Bishop Samuel Azariah threatened her by phone while she was at the CLAAS office. Gill had Roma implicate the bishop because CLAAS had been instrumental in clearing Bishop Azariah of charges of murdering his wife in April 2006, according to Sapna. She said that Gill bore a grudge against CLAAS because he had hoped to gain some advantage in the false charge against the bishop.

In response to an inquiry from Capital City (Lahore) Police, Ichhra police reported on March 7, 2007 that Basharat was a "fraudulent man" who repeatedly changed his religion in order to malign both Christianity and Islam, and that he repeatedly cheated on women. The Ichhra police quoted Basharat's first wife, Fouzia, as saying he "had already cheated on four girls like this."

Sapna said that Basharat originally converted from Islam to Christianity in 2001.

"He converted along with his wife Fouzia and two daughters," she said. "He did a seminary course, and after that he became part of the clergy and joined 15 Waris Road Central Church, run by Bishop Samuel Azariah. Roma used to go to this church for theological studies and was Basharat's student. There Basharat trapped her, and on Nov. 26, 2006 they got married [under Muslim rites]."

Compass obtained Fouzia Basharat's court statement of March 8, 2007, which she gave after her husband had married Roma. In the statement, Fouzia said that on Sept. 12, 2006, her husband brought his pupil Roma to her and told her that she was his new wife – that he had married her in a Christian rite. She also said in her statement that Basharat later married Roma/Aisha under Muslim rites, and that Roma had changed her name to Aisha.

Fouzia Basharat then filed a case under Christian Marriage Act Section 22 applying for judicial separation. Sapna said that Fouzia Basharat initially resisted marriage to Basharat and warded off a later effort to reconvert her to Islam.

"During that time, she stayed at the Central Church, and her children continued their education at St. Peter's High School," Sapna said. She added that the Christian rite marriage of Roma/Aisha to Basharat was illegal, and that CLAAS had sought only to help resolve associated problems.

Sapna said CLAAS staff members were concerned about Francis remaining incarcerated, as he suffers from diabetes and hypertension.

Civil and District Judge Malik Mushtaq of Magistrate Section 30 will hear the forgery case.