Suspect in Lahore blasphemy case fighting for his life | Pakistan News | Al Jazeera

Suspect in Lahore blasphemy case fighting for his life

A Christian resident of Lahore says he attempted suicide as interrogators forced him to perform oral sex on cousin.

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    Lahore, Pakistan - Sajid Masih lies in a hospital bed, struggling to breathe, as a watchful police guard keeps a close eye on him at the Mayo Hospital, in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore.

    Both of Masih's legs are in casts, and he is covered in bruises. His left eye is bloodshot, and the other appears to have sunken in, where his skull was fractured.

    Hospital officials at the intensive care unit say he is still too critical to operate on, and that he will need multiple surgeries on his neck, face and legs if he is ever to recover.

    Cut off from the outside world since he attempted to commit suicide by jumping from a fourth-floor window during a police interrogation in a blasphemy case, he looks around fearfully, asking if the guard is there to arrest him.

    Speaking is a struggle, through his oxygen mask, but Sajid manages a few more words.

    "Is Patras free yet?" he asks.

    'We are terrified'

    On February 19, a mob of dozens of enraged protesters stormed a Christian neighbourhood just outside Lahore, accusing Patras Masih, Sajid's cousin, of committing blasphemy.

    They raised chants calling for Patras, a 21-year-old sweeper, to be produced before them so that he could be lynched, community members told Al Jazeera.

    A view of the street on which Patras Masih lives [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

    When it became clear that Patras had already fled the area, they produced cans of petrol, threatening to burn down the entire neighbourhood.

    More than a week after the attack, the streets of the village of Baba Bandook Saeen remain largely deserted, with many of the area's more than 800 Christian residents too afraid to return.

    "Our whole village is still afraid, we are terrified that another mob attack might happen," says Waris Masih, 54, a labourer.

    Patras Masih is accused of having shared an allegedly blasphemous image on a Facebook messenger group, depicting a man standing with his foot placed on the dome of a mosque resembling the Masjid-e-Nabvi, an Islamic holy site.

    Pakistan's blasphemy laws prescribe a mandatory death penalty for anyone found guilty of "defiling the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad".

    Recent years have seen increasing violence associated with the laws, with at least 74 people killed in attacks motivated by blasphemy accusations since 1990, according to an Al Jazeera tally.

    Christians and other minorities, who make up about two percent of Pakistan's 207 million population, are disproportionately targeted by the laws, prosecution data shows.

    Patras, a sweeper at a local bank branch, surrendered himself voluntarily to authorities on the night of February 19, hours after the mob attacked, his father Inderias Masih told Al Jazeera.

    Days later, Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) officials summoned Sajid to their headquarters in Lahore, demanding access to his mobile phone, his lawyer and FIA officials said.

    Sajid went to the headquarters and handed over his phone upon arrival, his lawyer Aneeqa Maria told Al Jazeera.

    Hours later, still in FIA custody, Sajid Masih threw himself out of a fourth-floor window during a forensic examination of his phone, in an attempt to commit suicide.

    'They took off Patras' pants'

    Sajid survived, however, and the circumstances that led to his attempt to take his own life remain heavily disputed.

    Hours after the incident, Sajid recorded a video statement testifying that he had been heavily beaten during his interrogation, with police officials accusing him of having committed blasphemy.

    He alleges that FIA officials attempted to force him to perform oral sex on Patras, his cousin.

    "They took off Patras' pants, and […] that's when he jumped out of the window," Aneeqa Maria, lawyer for both men, told Al Jazeera.

    Patras Masih's family has fled their home in the Christian locality of Baba Bandook Saeen after a mob threatened to burn it down [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

    "To escape all that humiliation and all that torture. He thought that it is better if I die, rather than do this."

    In her first meeting with her client, Maria says, Patras corroborated this account, without being prompted with details.

    FIA officials deny the allegations, saying that Sajid jumped out of the window out of fear that he, too, was about to be accused of blasphemy.

    "Sajid was sitting at the desk watching his phone being looked at in the forensic lab for two hours, and was growing increasingly agitated," says Khalid Saeed, an FIA investigator who was present at the time.

    "[During the examination] he got up and ran for the window and then jumped out, out of fear."

    Sajid jumped onto the window sill, sat there for a few seconds, and then jumped, according to Saeed, who is facing disciplinary action for allowing a suspect to come into harm's way while in his custody.

    Masih's lawyer says she will pursue further legal action against Saeed, whom Sajid accuses of torturing him.

    From an examination of the window from which Sajid defenestrated himself, it is clear that survival from any fall would be highly unlikely.

    While the narratives diverge on the cause, the FIA and Sajid's family and lawyer do agree on one thing: Sajid Masih did not expect to survive the fall.

    Empowering accusers

    Muhammad Siddiq, Patras Masih's initial accuser, lives nearby and was a member of the Facebook Messenger group to which the image was allegedly sent, FIA officials say.

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    His case, however, has been championed by Muhammad Owais, a local worker of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA), a newly emergent religious organisation that has sprung to national prominence in Pakistan after a string of strong electoral performances and a protest that paralysed the capital, Islamabad, in November.

    Khadim Hussain Rizvi, TLRYA's leader and a religious figure who has made his name on the issue of blasphemy, led a protest of thousands that blocked a major highway into Islamabad in protest against a minor change in the wording of an oath parliamentarians must take affirming their rejection of the Ahmadi sect of Islam.

    Rizvi's protest resulted in the resignation of a federal minister, the reversal of the change in the oath and complete amnesty for the considerable damage done to infrastructure by the protesters.

    Ejaz Ashrafi, the information secretary for TLYRA, says that attacks on those who blaspheme or insult Islam's Prophet are entirely justified [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

    Posters bearing Rizvi's image and Owais' name are visible all over the Christian neighbourhood where Patras lives.

    The mob that threatened to burn down the village was primarily made up of TLRYA activists, residents allege. TLYRA denied the accusation, although leaders continue to threaten violence against anyone who commits blasphemy.

    "That man in Shahdara has gone beyond all limits," says Ejaz Ashrafi, TLYRA's information secretary.

    "Why did he do so? When one crosses the limit, then you have to face the consequences," he adds. 

    "Anyone who disrespects the Prophet, his home is not safe."

    Ashrafi says that while TLYRA had been gaining popularity in recent months, the success of the Islamabad protest has driven far more people towards it.

    "There has definitely been an increase [after the protest]. Our audience now has a greater awareness of our message."

    'Systematic delays'

    Hearings in Patras Masih's case are yet to begin, but it is likely to take years before a final verdict is reached.

    "There is a systematic delay in these cases," says Lahore-based rights lawyer Asad Jamal, who has represented several people accused of blasphemy.

    Jamal currently represents Junaid Hafeez, 31, a university lecturer in the central town of Multan, who has been in custody for five years while his trial has been conducted.

    The judge in the case, Jamal says, has been changed multiple times.

    Other lawyers corroborated to Al Jazeera that judges often do not appear to want to hear blasphemy cases, which are considered controversial.

    At least one judge has been killed in Pakistan in connection with a blasphemy verdict.

    Given the security threat associated with the allegations, Hafeez has remained in solitary confinement for four years.

    Inderias Masih, the accused's father, says his family is living in hiding, fearful of attacks on them due to the blasphemy allegations. His face is hidden for security reasons. [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

    "He is extremely anxious whenever I meet him and talk to him especially in the court room," said Jamal. "His health has degraded over the years. He has visibly lost hair."

    Hafeez is accused of being the administrator of a Facebook group where a blasphemous image was shared by a different user.

    For Patras, however, the concerns are more immediate.

    His family remains in hiding, fearful of being attacked if they return to their home.

    His brother Jamshed was fired from his job following the accusations, his father Inderias told Al Jazeera.

    At the hospital, Abid Masih, Sajid's father, spends another sleepless night on a stone bench outside the emergency ward.

    "We have done whatever [the FIA] asked. They asked us to go somewhere, we went there. They asked for the mobile phone, we gave the mobile phone. What else can we do?" he asks.

    "We have seen the extent to which they can go, from what Sajid has told us.

    "Patras is still with them."

    Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera's Web Correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.

    Should Pakistan's blasphemy laws change?

    Inside Story

    Should Pakistan's blasphemy laws change?

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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