Muslim men who gangraped two teenage Pakistani Christian sisters at gunpoint last year have been acquitted of their charges by a Pakistani court after a key witness was bribed into changing his testimony.
During the middle of the night on Nov. 28, 2014, sisters Sherish and Farzana went outside of their home in the village of Jaranwala in the Punjab province to use the bathroom since their home did not have inside plumbing. The two girls did not return home that night and were found the next morning lying unconscious along the side of the road several miles from their home.
After the girls were taken to the hospital, they told police that a well-known Muslim landlord, Muhammad Shabaz, and other Muslim men had abducted them at gunpoint and raped them repeatedly throughout the night.
After the incident, the girls and their father were threatened against pursuing legal action against the perpetrators but pressed charges anyway. After the men were arrested, Muslims opposed to the family's pressing of charges fired gunshots at the their house. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the incident.
Although the family pressed charges, the family claimed that local police "obstructed attempts to gather medical evidence."
Given the threats the family faced, the girls were held in a secretly located safe house rented by the London-based humanitarian organization, British Pakistani Christian Association, for their own safety and were taught English, math and vocational skills such as tailoring.
Shabaz and fellow Muslim Muhammad Azeem were both charged with the crime and forced to stand trial. However, the girl's father, Ilyas Masih, maintains that the men were cleared of their charges in October because a key prosecution witness changed his testimony in favor of the defendants after being threatened and accepting a bribe.
"The case has allegedly been lost due to the unreliability of a key witness who originally, in the face of threats, refused to attend the court, then when instructed to attend by the court changed his original statement," a BPCA press release explains. "Mr. Ghafoor, who was previously a family friend, has been accused of taking a bribe and altering his statement in lieu of this payment."
Masih said he plans to appeal the ruling to a higher court in order to receive justice for his daughters. Masih accuses the judge and police of religious bias and also partly blames the loss on prosecution attorney Sardar Mushtaq Gill.
"The judge and police displayed a clear bias toward the culprits because of the religious discrimination," Masih told BPCA. "I am really upset and disappointed that we have lost the case and didn't get justice. Mushtaq Gill didn't fight the case very well and showed a poor level of commitment. Mostly he stayed absent from the hearings of the case in the court. The lawyer didn't even participate in the cross questioning of the culprits in the court."
Gill told The Christian Post that he attended "every necessary hearing in court" and insisted that his attendance was not the issue. Gill said the result of the hearing is likely because of the fact that statements from the victims were different than what was recorded on the police report. Gill added that a DNA test found no semen detected on the girls' bodies.
But given the fact that medical evidence was obstructed by the police during the early stages of the investigation and the fact that Masih claims the police had religious bias against him and his daughters, the case could have likely been lost simply because of the police department's bias.
"From the very first day, there were many drawbacks in the investigation," Gill argued.
With the culprits being released from jail, Masih is terrified of the hostility that could come his family's way in retaliation if they returns home.to Jaranwala. Masih is trying to relocate outside of the village and is looking to buy another house.
The lease on the safe house that BPCA has rented for the family is set to expire in eight months and the organization looks to extend the lease another year to give the family more time to figure out where and how to relocate. BPCA is also considering buying a house that can be used to house and protect other persecuted Pakistani Christians.
Although the girls are safe for the time being, BPCA reports that Farzana has suffered from severe anxiety since the attack.
"The girls have been doing relatively well despite everything that they have been through, but Farzana, the elder of the two, has suffered anxiety and depression since the attack and has been even more withdrawn since the court's announcement that the prosecution has failed," the BPCA release states. "In recent weeks a donor has offered to pay for a series of 10 trauma counselling sessions with a professional licensed psychiatrist for Farzana and we hope to begin these soon."