South Asia

Arrest of latest victim of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law

A 41-year-old man, Babu Shahbaz,  from a village near Lahore is the latest Christian to be accused of blasphemy.

The police arrested him after allegations were made against on 30 December 2016.  Shahbaz was accused of committing blasphemy after his name was found written on pages of the Quran that were desecrated and scattered in a street leading to a Muslim place of worship.

Haji Nadeem, a local Muslim man is the accuser. In his statement to the police Nadeem alleged that he saw the desecrated pages of the Quran while going to mosque in the morning and that the pages had the name “Babu Shahbaz” written on them.  According to reports, Babu Shahbaz is an illiterate person and does not know how to read and write.

The police, acting swiftly on the complaint of Nadeem, arrested Babu Shahbaz, his wife Rani Bibi and his daughter Saher at 6:30 am on December 30, 2016 and kept them at the Nishtar Colony Police Station to avoid tensions in the area. Later on Shahbaz was transferred to the Police Station at Model Town Lahore and extra police were deployed in the area to quell tensions.

Mohammad Jibran Nasir, a young Pakistani civil liberty activist and a lawyer, told the media, “In simple terms the complainant’s story is that a Christian man desecrated the Quran while hidden from everyone’s eyes and then he left evidence by writing his name on the torn pages so that he could be caught later,”

Shahbaz’s family approached Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) an interdenominational activist organisation, who then intervened in the situation and met the Superintendent of Police as well as Babu Shahbaz.

According to a press release by CLAAS, the Superintendent of Police has promised a fair inquiry into the matter. The police also gave custody of Shahbaz’s wife and daughter to CLAAS officials and both of them are currently taking shelter at the CLAAS rehabilitation Centre.

The press release by CLAAS, says that Haji Nadeem, the person who filed the complaint against Babu Shahzad, is a jealous rival shopkeeper whose motivation to file the complaint against Shahbaz is to shut down the grocery shop owned by George Masih, Babu Shahbaz’s brother.

The press release states that Babu Shahzad is an evangelist who has been preaching for a decade and a half and regularly organizes healing prayer meetings at his residence. His meetings are well attended and he has become popular locally.

Nasir Saeed, Director of CLAAS-UK said, “The misuse of the Blasphemy law continues to rise against Christians and other religious minorities. It is sad that the family has to suffer during the Christmas period and I wish the matter is resolved out of court as soon as possible, otherwise Shahbaz’s fate will be the same as the Asia Bibi, Sawan Masih, Zaffar Bhatti and many others who have been languishing in jails for years.”

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan have been criticized severely by international bodies and observers as well as voices from within Pakistan who have called for the repealing of the controversial laws. Over 1300 people have been accused of blasphemy between 1987 and 2014, majority of them being Muslims.

It is however the Christian minority that has had to face the brunt of the violence and the harm that the laws bring. More often than not these laws are used to take over properties of Christians and to settle personal scores. Asia Bibi who is on the death row since 2009 after being convicted of blasphemy by a local court, is perhaps the most well known example of the way these laws have been used to target minorities.

Salmaan Taseer, the liberal politician of Pakistan, who opposed the blasphemy law and called for pardon for Asia Bibi was shot down by his guard Mumtaz Qadri, who became a cult figure among the hardliners in Pakistan.

Nasir Saeed of CLAAS-UK said, “Blasphemy laws clearly violate international human rights treaties ratified by the Pakistani government, therefore it is the duty of the international community to build pressure on the Pakistani government to fulfil their international obligations and bring their law in line with these treaties.”