An angry Pakistani mob almost killed a 16-year-old Christian boy – who is completely illiterate and also slightly mentally challenged – for allegedly burning the pages of a Quran. He was then apparently forced to confess to the alleged crime, and is now in custody – despite apparent inconsistencies in evidence, and witness testimony of alternative explanations.
The incident involving Asif Masih, also known as Sheeda, took place about 250 kilometres from Lahore in the remote village of Jamkay Cheema, in Gujranwala district, on 12 August, two days before Pakistan celebrated its 70th Independence Day. The 16-year-old juvenile has been charged under Section 295B of the blasphemy law, and if found guilty, faces life imprisonment.
Asif Masih was buying a few household goods when Muhammad Nawaz, also known as Majhoo, grabbed him and started calling out to passers-by that Masih had broken the money collection box in the shrine of a Sufi saint, Pir Sandhay Shah.
“As soon as a mob gathered, Majhoo incited them by saying that Asif had burned pages of a Quran, at which people started beating him up,” Waheed Masih, Asif’s uncle, told World Watch Monitor.
Waheed said that while Asif was being beaten up, someone informed the police. “Police from a nearby check-post arrived and put Asif in their van, but people still were trying to beat him up and pull him out of the van. After that, the frenzied mob arrived at the check-post and tried to snatch him from police custody,” he said.
“They were shouting that they wanted to kill him and burn his body. Realising the pressure, the police called Alipur Chatta Police Station to send more policemen. Until they arrived, Asif was still being beaten up and, out of fear, confessed that he had burned the pages.”
But the first information report (FIR), lodged in Alipur Chatta Police Station, was not filed by Muhammad Nawaz (Matchi, a caste name), the man who sits at the shrine, but by an imam of the local mosque.
Arshad Ali states in the FIR that “at about 12.30pm, I was at the Pir Sandhay Shah shrine, along with Nawaz Matchi and Munawar Hassan, to offer prayers, when Asif entered the shrine, picked up the Quran, brought it out, poured kerosene oil on it and set it on fire.”
Ivan Gill, a community leader, rejects the claim. “The shrine is about two kilometres from the village and 12.30 is the time of Zohar prayer. How could the imam not be at his mosque, but instead had gone to a shrine two kilometres away?” he said.
The shrine is near a canal in a desolate place. It is extremely small, so only two or three can enter it at a time. “When these three were there, Asif could not have entered to pick up the Quran. Even if he managed, then why could these three not stop him?” Gill said.
Waheed said that, right after the incident, they were told by several people that burned pages of the Quran had been found about two weeks before outside the shrine. “Majhoo took the pages to several people, who later informed us that he was told to bury those pages, as no-one knew who burned them,” he said.
Until the police arrived, Asif was still being beaten up and, out of fear, confessed that he had burned the pages.”
“Mahjoo collects used bottles and sells boiled corn. Asif also collects used bottles. So there was a business rivalry between the two.”
Gill said that a year ago, another Christian – Arif Masih – was accused of committing blasphemy. “Arif has a big following, from both Muslims and Christians, who believe he is a faith healer. Arif has also become rich, which has made local Muslim clergy envious. He was absolved of the charge after it could not be proved,” Gill said.
“When they were beating up Asif, they pressured him to say that he did it as Arif Masih had asked him, but Asif said he even didn’t know who Arif was.”
Asif Masih’s father, Stephan, is a bonded labourer to a local landlord. Almost all local Christians serve as labourers. After Asif’s arrest, they went on strike, reported Gill. “The landlords are against the [Muslim] clergy connection, itself against the Christians, because it hurts [the landlords’] work. So they openly oppose the clergy for wrongly accusing an innocent and chances are that they will give testimony in the court in Asif’s favour,” he said.
The Sub-Inspector in charge of the check-post, Parvaiz Gujar, told World Watch Monitor that Masih is 19, not 16. “Asif confessed to the crime when rescued from the mob and we have evidence that he committed the crime,” he said. Talking to a local English-language newspaper, Gujar said: “The police saved him from the enraged mob… His family should be grateful to the police. The mob surrounded the police station but we pacified the protesters with the help of the notables of the area.”
A day before this incident, a Pakistani judge had asked Parliament to amend the blasphemy law to “require the same punishment [usually the death penalty] for those who falsely allege blasphemy as for those who commit the crime.” Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court said “it was better to stop exploitation of the law rather than to abolish it”.
In a detailed judgement on blasphemous content on social media, Justice Siddiqui also suggested to Parliament that “since blasphemy directly hurt the emotions of the followers of Prophet Muhammad … while registering a [blasphemy] case, the investigation officer should consider adding sub-section (f) and (p) of Section 6 of the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997”.
Allegations of offences under the terrorism law would only increase the risks to minorities, local sources fear.
Exactly five years ago, another Pakistani juvenile, the 14-year-old Rimsha Masih, was falsely accused by a local imam of burning pages from an Islamic textbook. She too had learning difficulties. She was jailed after angry crowds threatened to burn Christian homes in the sector of Islamabad where her family lived. She faced the prospect of being tried as an adult until the court ruled that she was a minor. Her case hit the international news headlines.
The case against her collapsed after police were informed that the cleric of the mosque in her area had planted the burned pages on her. Pakistani courts eventually threw out the charges against the girl, but her family had to go into hiding to escape mob justice, before fleeing to Canada after a few weeks. Eventually, the case against the imam was dropped, due to a lack of evidence against him too.
Last month another 16-year-old boy was charged with blasphemy, simply for talking with a colleague about his belief in Jesus, the second such incident in a month.
A further 16-year-old boy, Nabeel Masih, accused of blasphemy for “liking” and “sharing” a Facebook post which “defamed and disrespected” the Kaaba in Mecca, has continually been refused bail – despite his lawyers’ insistence that, as a child with no prior convictions, he should be released.