ISLAMABAD: The November 4 chilling episode of mob violence at Kot Radha Kishan where a Christian couple was beaten and burned alive after being thrown into the kiln where they worked, has further tainted the already dismal record of the PML-N government which has generally failed to shield the members of the minority communities from the wrath of extremists, writes Amir Mir.
Like in the previous such cases of Aasia Bibi and Ramsha Masih, who had been accused of committing blasphemy, the most recent episode also revolves around a cleric who told his community through loudspeakers of his mosque to punish the Christian couple for burning pages of the Holy Quran.
A mob subsequently gathered outside the house of Shehzad Masih, 32, and his wife Shama, in her 20s, dragged them out and beat them to death, before setting their bodies on fire in a brick kiln where they worked.
The incident took place in the tiny village of Chak 59 near Kot Radha Kishan town, which is 60 kilometers from Lahore. As usual, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Chief Minister brother Shahbaz Sharif have ordered an inquiry, as had been done after the July 31, 2009 and the March 9, 2013 anti-Christian riots in Gojra and Lahore respectively where hundreds houses and shops of the Christians’ were ransacked, looted and finally set ablaze by religiously motivated fanatics.
According to careful estimates, under his six and a half years chief minister ship in Punjab (between 2008 till 2014), over 250 Christians, Shias and Ahmedis have been killed so far in Punjab in hate-driven assaults, with some of the horrendous attacks targeting the minority communities happening in Lahore. Shahbaz Sharif is the longest serving Chief Minister of Punjab (having already served for over a decade) by holding the same office twice before between 1997 till 1999 and 2008 till 2013. But his government’s ‘history sheet’ is simply murky to say the least, keeping in view the number of non-stop incidents of mob violence and terrorism in Punjab against members of the minority communities, especially Christians and Ahmedis.
Hardly 18 months ago, a violent mob forced 170 Christian families of Lahore to flee the Joseph Colony [on March 9, 2013] before setting ablaze their houses over allegations that a Christian resident of the area had committed blasphemy. A day after the riots, several Christian leaders including Bishop Akram Gill, the Bishop of Pakistan and Dr Nazir Bhatti, the president of Christians National Congress, had accused Malik Riaz (PML-N MNA from NA-118 Lahore) of leading the anti-Christian rally in the Joseph Colony along with hundreds of the PML-N and SSP workers. A subsequent probe gave broad hints that the Joseph Colony riots were possibly an attempt by an influential political figure of the area to get hold of the lucrative property of the Christians Colony which spreads over more than 20 kanals in the heart of Lahore. The Colony was attacked despite the fact that the alleged blasphemer, Sawan Masih, had already been arrested by the Badami Bagh police.
In an almost similar incident, hundreds of activists belonging to the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) had attacked a Christians’ locality in Punjab’s Gojra city on July 31, 2009 and burnt alive eight members of a family besides setting ablaze more than 100 houses. The anti-Christian riots in Gojra were actually triggered by reports of desecration of the Holy Quran by some Christians which eventually proved false. The failure of the Punjab government to prosecute any of the 70 accused held responsible for the gory incident had compelled the surviving head of the family to leave Pakistan after the Punjab police failed to arrest the culprits who had been hurling death threats to him for pursuing the murder case of eight family members. Five of those who had been burnt alive by the attackers were women and children who could not run to save their lives when their house was attacked by the SSP men.
A total of 72 people were nominated in the Gojra attacks’ FIR who were set free one by one because the complainant in the murder case, Almas Hameed Masih, a resident of the Christian Colony, decided against pursuing the case and left Pakistan to save his life. Almas had actually nominated the president of the Toba Tek Singh chapter of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) in the FIR as one of the accused who was held responsible for the July 2010 incident along with the local leadership of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan which has already been renamed as the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ). Those nominated in the case registered under section-7 of the Anti Terrorism Act, included Abdul Qadir Awan of PML-N and Maulana Abdul Khaliq, Qari Abidur Rehman Shah and Hafiz Mohammad Imran of the ASWJ.
Ten months after the Gojra tragedy, two fidayeen squads of the Punjabi Taliban targeted two Ahmedi worship places in the Model Town and Garhi Shahu areas of Lahore and killed over 100 people who were offering Friday prayers. Claiming responsibility for the May 28, 2010 twin terrorist attacks, Mansoor Maawia, a spokesperson for the Punjabi Taliban had said, “No Ahmedi would live in peace in Pakistan. Our war against them will continue till their total elimination as they are as worst infidels as Jews are.”
It later transpired during investigations that the master planner of the twin attacks was in fact a doctor of the Jinnah Hospital, Dr Ali Abdullah, who was also the president of Jamaatul Daawa Medical Wing. He told his interrogators that while pursuing his medical degree at Allama Iqbal medical college, he had received armed training in Azad Kashmir at a Lashkar-e-Tayyaba training camp being run by Hafiz Saeed’s Jamaatul Daawa (JuD). His arrest showed for the first time that the Lashkar-e- Tayyaba was a part of the Punjabi Taliban who had let loose a reign of terror across Pakistan, especially targeting the minority communities. However, none of the accused in the twin attacks targeting the Ahmedi worship places has so far been taken to task.
Seven months later [on January 4, 2011], Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was shot dead in the federal capital by Malik Mumtaz Qadri, a fanatic body guard from the Elite Force of the Punjab Police. The killer later explained that he had assassinated Taseer because of his criticism of the blasphemy law and his efforts to secure a presidential pardon for Aasia Bibi, a poor Christian woman already condemned to death by a Pakistani Anti Terrorism Court for having committed blasphemy.
However, quite ironically, the jailed killer of the former Punjab Governor seems to be enjoying a free hand at the Adiala Jail Rawalpindi to indoctrinate those around him and incite them into killing blasphemy accused and convicts even in their prison cells. An inquiry report into the September 25, 2014 murder attempt on Mohammad Asghar, an elderly British schizophrenic who was sentenced to death on blasphemy charges last year and shot by one of prison guards at Adiala Jail has revealed that the guard had been provoked to do so by Taseer’s jailed assassin, Malik Mumtaz Qadri.
Two months after Taseer’s assassination, [on March 2, 2011], Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, a Roman Catholic and an outspoken critic of the blasphemy law, was shot dead on a busy road in the federal capital Islamabad. The responsibility for the assassination was placed on the Punjabi Taliban because of a pamphlet found at the place where he was killed. Written in Urdu, the leaflet claimed that Bhatti had been killed because of his opposition to the blasphemy law. His killers have already been arrested but none of them has been convicted so far.
The next in line to be killed by the Punjabi Taliban was Bargeeta Almby, a 72-year old female Christian charity worker from Sweden, who was shot in the Model Town area of Lahore on December 3, 2012 for allegedly backing two Christian priests who had been accused of committing blasphemy. Bargeeta, the managing director of the Full Gospel Assemblies (FGA), a church fellowship founded in the United States with congregations worldwide, was returning home from her Kot Lakhpat office when two unidentified motorcyclists shot her in the Model Town area of Lahore where she had been living since long. She was shifted to Sweden but she could not survive.
The day Bargeeta was targeted in Model Town, another significant incident took place in the Model Town area of Lahore where a dozen masked men carrying arms and digging tools, had vandalised the tombstones of 100-plus graves at an Ahmadi cemetery. In fact, Model Town also houses a huge office of the Jamaatul Daawa, which is located quite close to one of the Ahmedi worship places which had been attacked on May 28, 2010. And Model Town is the same area from where Warren Weinstein, a 71-year old Jewish American US Aid official, was abducted on August 13, 2011 by armed men who had eventually sold him to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.