Unholy Terror Puts a Boy on Death Row

By McGirk, Tim | The Independent (London, England), February 19, 1995 | Go to article overview
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Unholy Terror Puts a Boy on Death Row


McGirk, Tim, The Independent (London, England)


PAKISTAN is in the throes of an Islamic Inquisition. A 14-year- old Christian boy sits in his cell on death row in Lahore's Kot Lakhpat prison waiting to be hanged. He is skinny, withdrawn and his downcast eyes seldom lift from his feet. His crime: Salamat Masih is convicted of blasphemy, of having scrawled graffiti on the mud wall of a mosque in his village, even though, at the time, the unschooled boy was incapable of writing his own name.

Salamat and an older Christian, Rehmat, 23, were convicted on 9 February in Lahore of insulting the Prophet Mohammed, which is punishable by nothing less than death. A third defendant, Salamat's uncle, Manzoor, was machine- gunned at a stop-light last April by Muslim fanatics while on his way back to prison from a court hearing. He died instantly. Salamat, riding in the same car, was also injured in the spray of bullets.

The court's sentence for the two Christians has jolted Pakistan. Even the Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, who at times seems scared to tangle with the country's powerful Islamic fundamentalists, said she was "shocked and surprised" by it. For many liberal, Western-educated Pakistanis the blasphemy case is a stark illustration of how badly their country is being convulsed by witch-hunts and religious persecution.

Pakistan is beset by an intolerant strain of Islam spilling over from Afghanistan, where mujahedin warriors defeated the Soviet Red Army and then fell to fighting among themselves over religious and ethnic feuds. Sectarian hatred - and guns from the Afghan war - are spreading into Pakistan's cities and villages. Extremist Muslim clergymen have been using a 1992 blasphemy law in the Pakistani penal code to settle scores with anyone who crosses them. Not only is blasphemy punished by a mandatory death sentence, but all it takes to charge someone is one man's testimony. Judges are often too petrified of the Muslim fundamentalists even to give bail to the accused.

Islamic extremists are using the law to target the country's Christian minority as well as the Hindus and smaller Islamic sects such as the Shias and the Ahmadis. "This country is gripped by a psychosis of fear," says IA Rehman, a human rights activist in Lahore. "Things aren't holding together anymore. These people think they can defy authority and get away with it."

Despite Ms Bhutto's liberal faade, she seems unwilling or unable to douse the religious bigotry inflaming her country. Under pressure from Muslim reactionaries, she backed down from amending the blasphemy law to add safeguards against the many false accusations that have arisen. More than 100 blasphemy cases are now being prosecuted. So far, though, the higher courts have saved any of those accused from being executed.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups criticise the courts and the police for letting Islamic extremists twist the laws. During the appeal hearing on Thursday in Lahore for Salamat and Rehmat, the prosecutor defied the two judges, telling them: "I don't respect you. I only respect the higher law of Allah." His insult was reinforced by a mob of green- turbanned extremists outside the courtroom shouting "Anyone who defends the infidels must die!" A defence counsel, Hina Jinani, said: "It is no longer a question of a few peoples' survival but of society's. Are we going to sit back and let it happen?"

Few of Pakistan's minorities can escape the wave of sectarian frenzy sweeping the country. Fanatic clergymen from the main Sunni sect have been persecuting the Shia and Ahmadi minorities, leading to dozens of killings. Hindus are also targeted: all cremation grounds have been shut down in Pakistan except for Sind province, so that, according to one human rights advocate, Aziz Siddiqui, "if a Hindu dies in Islamabad or Lahore, his body must be carried clear across the country to be cremated".

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