The mother of a Pakistani Christian found dead last week says her son, who was 32, had to be on call 24 hours a day to serve local landlords (to reduce a big loan to his family) and was killed for expressing a desire to escape his “debt trap”.

Naseem Bibi holds a photo of her son, Javed Masih, who was 32. (The Voice Society)

On the morning of Thursday 20 July, about 200 men and women blocked Sargodha Road in Faisalabad – Pakistan’s third-most-populous city, in the Punjab province – to protest about Javed Masih’s unexpected death, about which the Nishatabad Police Station refused to register a case.

“After we blocked the road the police arrived and promised to register a case, but still that has not been done,” his mother, Naseem, told World Watch Monitor.

Masih had four brothers and one sister. His father moved to the Kamalpur (chak 5) area of Faisalabad decades ago from Sheikhupura District (100km east), one of the areas where Christianity spread during the British era in the late 19th century.

Kamalpur is an old area of the city, where about 200 Christian families live, mostly working as bonded labourers (“seipi“), who receive an advance payment, after which they are bound to their job until they have paid off the sum. Their monthly salary is always so meagre that returning the advance payment remains an elusive dream, thereby sustaining a prevailing, if little known, system of bondage within the Indian subcontinent.

“Javed in recent days had been extremely upset,” his mother said. “Several people told us that his employers were brutalising him every now and then, but Javed never told us because he was afraid that they might also harm the family.

“A few days before his death, Javed several times nervously tried to tell me something but then stopped. I kept asking him but each time he said that he would tell me some other time.”

A stamped affidavit, dated 20 July 2017, recording the 200,000 rupees given to Javed Masih’s family. Human rights activist Ivan Gill says Masih’s landlord gave his family the money so they wouldn’t file a case against him.

Nishatabad investigation officer Zia Ullah told World Watch Monitor that the family had submitted a legal paper, saying they did not want legal action as their son had committed suicide, but the family denies this.

“All I know is that the autopsy was being conducted and the final result was being awaited,” Ullah said. “But I don’t know if the family has now lodged an application for filing a criminal case.”

While the autopsy report is awaited, the Allied Hospital issued a death certificate noting that the cause of death was “wheat pill poisoning”.

But human rights activist Ivan Gill says he doubts Javed Masih took his own life, telling World Watch Monitor: “Right after Masih’s death, Christians of the area blocked the road to lodge their complaint and protest against the reluctance of the police at filing a case. If the [local Christians] were convinced of Javed’s suicide, then why they did protest in the first place?

“I have met every district authority for registering of the case but until now nothing has taken place. I don’t see justice will take place. Influential landlords often have support of the local police, and so have these people.

“The landlord has given 200,000 rupees [roughly 2,000 US dollars] to the family to not to file a case and a stamped affidavit was written for this purpose.”

How Javed Masih’s family heard about his death

Javed Masih had four brothers and one sister. (The Voice Society)

Masih’s brother, Imran, says his brother “lived at his employers’ place all the time, as he was their 24/7 employee, whose job was to take care of the cattle and fields.

“On Wednesday, at around 8.30pm, I received a phone call from a villager, saying that my brother was at Dr Ali Asghar’s private hospital. When we arrived there, we asked a doctor about Javed, who told us that everything was under control and there was no need to worry. The doctor two hours later discharged Javed and we brought him home.

“Then at about 4.30am Javed’s condition got worse. We called the emergency service ambulance and took him to the Allied Hospital, where he passed away at around 8.30am. He vomited once but never told us anything regarding what had happened to him, as he seemed quite terrified.”

Javed’s younger brother, Irfan, told World Watch Monitor that when they were preparing his body for burial, they noticed that “his right shoulder at the back was swollen and his ribs on both sides at the back were bruised and beaten”.

After the protest, the body was again sent to the Allied Hospital for an autopsy and then returned later that evening for the burial.

How did Javed Masih become a slave?

In June 2015, Javed Masih’s family did not have a place to live. They needed 315,000 Pakistan rupees ($3,000) to buy a place of their own. Masih borrowed the money from Tajamal Iqbal, an influential local landlord.

“In lieu of his monthly service, Javed received 7,000 rupees [$70] a month, being deducted from the 315,000,” his mother explained.

The agreement was for two years, and the remaining amount was to be paid by the end. “However, in June I went to the landlords and they refused to relieve Javed,” Naseem said. “They told me that Javed would work for five years and threatened dire consequences if he tried to escape in any case.”

World Watch Monitor has acquired a copy of the agreement, which was signed by the landlords and Javed’s family members and says they are entitled to 200,000 rupees ($2,000) and complete ownership of the land they hadn’t yet paid for.

There has been speculation about the fact that, a few months ago, another local landlord’s motorcycle was stolen and Javed was suspected of the theft. However, Javed’s brother Imran says the landlords accused their uncle and several other workers when the matter arose in May, “but it was ultimately settled and it has nothing to do with his death”.

Most Christians in Pakistan are poor and work in menial jobs in cities. Those living in villages rarely own their own agricultural land, so most work as tenants. The “debt trap” is a common tool to control the illiterate and poor classes.

A Christian couple burned alive in November 2014 also worked as bonded labourers at the brick kiln where their tortured bodies were thrown to be burned to ashes.