LAHORE, Pakistan – Police in Punjab Province, Pakistan have illegally detained a Christian on a “blasphemy” accusation, even though one officer said he was certain an area Muslim falsely accused 40-year-old Arif Masih because of a property dispute.
On April 5, Shahid Yousuf Bajwa, Masih’s next-door neighbor, initially filed a First Information Report (FIR) against “an unidentified person” for desecrating the Quran after finding threatening letters and pages with quranic verses on the street outside his home in Village 129 RB-Tibbi, Chak Jhumra, Faisalabad district. Desecrating the Quran under Section 295-B of Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes is punishable by up to 25 years in prison.
“Some identified person has desecrated the Holy Quran and has tried to incite sentiments of the Muslims,” Bajwa wrote in the FIR. Clearly stating that he did not know who had done it, he wrote, “It is my humble submission to the higher authorities that those found guilty must be given exemplary punishment.”
Bajwa charges in the FIR that when he went outside his home at 9 p.m. and found the pages, he looked at them by the light of his cell phone and thought they were pages of the Quran. Masih’s uncle, Amjad Chaudhry, told Compass the pages look like those of a school textbook containing quranic verses.
Chaudhry said Bajwa and his two brothers are policemen. After Bajwa found the pages and the threatening letters, Chaudhry said, he arranged for an announcement to be made from the loudspeaker of the area mosque.
“The message urged all the Muslims of the village to gather there due to the urgency and sensitivity of the matter,” Chaudhry said.
He said initially local Muslims were very angry and suggested that Christian homes be set ablaze, but that others said the Christians should be first given a chance to explain whether they were responsible.
“Then some Muslims began saying that because Arif Masih lived on this street, he would be the person who could have done this crime,” he said. “However, most of the people who gathered there said that they knew Arif Masih well and they could not imagine he could do such a vile thing. But others insisted that because Masih was the only Christian who lived on the street, only he could be suspected of the crime.”
At about 10 p.m. on April 5, Chaudhry said, Bajwa’s brother Abdullah Bajwa called Masih to the Siyanwala police station, where he was arrested; Masih’s family members were unaware that he had been arrested.
According to Section 61 of Pakistan’s Criminal Procedure Code, an arrested person must be produced within 24 hours before a court; Masih has been detained at an undisclosed location without a court appearance since April 5, with police failing to register his arrest in any legal document, making his detention illegal. Investigating Officer Qaisar Younus denied that Masih was in police custody, but Superintendent of the Police Abdul Qadir told Compass that Masih had been detained for his own safety.
Younus told Compass that he was sure Masih was innocent, but that he had been falsely accused because of a land dispute.
According to Chaudhry, about two years ago Masih bought a plot next to his house that another villager, Liaquat Ali Bajwa (no relation to Shahid Yousuf Bajwa) wanted to buy – and who despised Masih for it, telling the previous owner, “How come a Christian can buy the plot that I wanted to buy?”
The parcel owner had given Masih preference as he knew him well, and he understood that the homeowner adjacent to the property had the first rights to it anyway.
At the same time, Ali Bajwa was able to seize about five square feet of the house of a Christian named Ghulam Masih after the wall of his home was destroyed in last year’s flooding. Feeling he was not in position to challenge Ali Bajwa, Ghulam Masih sold the land to Arif Masih so that he could take charge, Chaudhry said.
Arif Masih subsequently filed a civil suit against Ali Bajwa to evict him from his property. Chaudhry said Arif Masih was about to win that case, and that Ali Bajwa thought he could retain that property and obtain the one Arif Masih had purchased by accusing him of blasphemy with the help of police officer Shahid Yousuf Bajwa.
Ali Bajwa had been threatening Masih, saying, “You will not only give me this plot, but I will even take your house,” Chaudhry said.
Chaudhry said he had learned that Shahid Yousuf Bajwa felt badly after villagers criticized him for falsely accusing an innocent man of blasphemy, but that Bajwa feared that if he withdrew the case he himself would be open to blasphemy charges.
Arif Masih’s family has remained steadfast throughout the case, refusing to flee the area in spite of the possibility of Muslim villagers being incited to attack them, Chaudhry said.
“It all became possible because of Muslim villagers who sided with us,” he said.
Chaudhry said that when police arrived at the scene of the Muslims who had gathered with the pages and the threatening letters, the villagers told officers that they had not seen who threw them on the street. He said that the letters included the threat, “You Muslims have failed in doing any harm to us, and now I order you all to convert to Christianity or else I will shoot you all.”
The letters did not bear the name of the person who wrote them, he added.
On Monday (April 11), Chaudhry managed to meet with Masih, though Masih’s wife has yet to see him. Chaudhry told Compass that the first thing Masih asked him was whether everyone was safe, as there are only three Christian families in the area of about 150 Muslim homes.
“If the mob had decided to harm our houses, then it would have been very devastating,” Chaudhry said.
After Masih was arrested, at midnight police came to his house and began beating on the main gate, Chaudhry said. When Masih’s wife, Razia Bibi opened the door, the officers rushed into the house and searched it.
“They were looking for some proof, but thank God they could not find anything that could even be remotely linked with the incident,” he said.
Chaudhry added that police have not mistreated Masih, but he said the matter has lingered so long that he feared police may involve him in the case, or that “things may go wrong like in most blasphemy cases.”