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Blasphemy trials in Pakistan reveal a broken justice system

By Karin Brulliard and Shaiq Hussain
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 11, 2010; 12:00 AM

KULLUWAL, PAKISTAN - With its single dirt road, friendly residents and abundance of drowsing donkeys, this village hardly seems a hotbed of religious radicalism.

Nevertheless, four years ago, dozens of angry townspeople marched and chanted, "Death to the blasphemer!" Their demands were answered. Two years later, court records show, a teenaged Muslim named Muhammad Shafique was sentenced to hang for cursing the Prophet Muhammad and tossing pages of the Koran onto "cow dung and urine."

Today, an air of regret permeates Kulluwal. Shafique's accusers fled town, and their relatives now say the allegations were lies. Many residents call the case a setup fueled by political and personal rivalries. But as Shafique waits on death row, his appeal stuck in Pakistan's glacial courts, no one is quite sure what to do.

"The situation at that time was emotional. It was the responsibility of the police to sift through the facts and find the truth," said Chaudhry Safraz Ahmed, 42, a community leader whose father was one of Shafique's accusers. "That did not happen. And Shafique is behind bars."

Pakistan is in the midst of a heated debate over its ban on blasphemy following the sentencing to death last month of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi. The pope condemned that sentence, which has not yet been carried out. Human rights organizations, meanwhile, have demanded the repeal of a law that they say is used to harass religious and sectarian minorities in this Sunni Muslim-majority nation.

But blasphemy cases, about half of which involve Muslim suspects such as Shafique, also point to a more fundamental problem with grave implications for the nation's U.S.-backed fight against militancy: Pakistan's broken justice system, corrupt and lacking in expertise, often rewards vendettas and encourages radicalism.

In this system, religious extremism is less an epidemic than a menacing shadow - just as it is across Pakistan, an unstable democracy where Islamist threats often eclipse the majority's more peaceful views.

The law against blasphemy - which encompasses vaguely worded prohibitions on insults against Islam - gives radicals a tool with which to bully those who don't share their hardline religious views. Legal experts say lawyers, witnesses and authorities are frequently intimidated into helping to enforce the law, leading to injustices that bolster militants' anti-government arguments.

"These are the kind of provisions that allow space for extremists to act with impunity," Ali Dayan Hasan, a Pakistan-based representative for Human Rights Watch, said of the blasphemy law. "This country is, in that sense, at a crossroads where it is time for people to stand up."

Disputed account

Just what happened on the evening of March 17, 2006, in this agrarian corner of Punjab province remains in dispute. It took a court in the nearby city of Sialkot 73 hearings over 27 months to gather enough testimony for a verdict. Lawyers' strikes, witnesses' absences and a funeral caused delays. In the end, the key evidence against Shafique, now 22, was witness accounts and soiled scraps of pages from a Koran, which the judge deemed impossible to fake.

"The question arises whether . . . a Muslim can think to smear the pages of the Holy Book with cow dung and urine just to create an evidence to involve his opponents," the judge wrote in 2008. "Not an iota of evidence has been produced by the accused in this regard."

But Shafique's family, along with many others in Kulluwal, cite two reasons for such a plot. Shafique, an aspiring electrician, had accused his brother's wife of adultery. And her alleged paramour had powerful allies, among them a town politician with his own motive: Shafique's brother was challenging him in a village election.

Whatever the case, word of Shafique's alleged rampage spread, and a crowd beat him viciously, residents recalled. Qari Qadir, the village imam, said he declined requests to announce the offense over his mosque's loudspeaker, fearing a "serious situation." Instead, he led a march the next day at which protesters demanded that police file charges.

"Everybody was against him," said Ahmed, the community leader. "The police thought it could become a law-and-order situation if they did not take action."

According to court records, two main accusers - the politician and Ahmed's father - did not testify. Four young men who did gave nearly identical statements about seeing Shafique curse the prophet and rip the Koran.

Shafique testified that the charges were personal and political, and that he "heatedly" loved Allah.

The court sentenced Shafique to join about 7,600 others in Pakistan on death row, about 60 of whom are convicted blasphemers, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. The country has not executed anyone since 2008, and blasphemy cases are often overturned on appeal.

But for many, that potential reprieve is little help. Suspects are often murdered in prison or after release, a fact one Pakistani court used to justify the blasphemy law - in prison, it reasoned, suspects are protected from public rage.

Blasphemy was outlawed during British colonial rule but made a capital crime in the 1980s under the Islamist military rule of Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. Now, the law is being scrutinized; a bill in parliament would shorten sentences, require evidence that the crime was committed intentionally and introduce punishment for false accusation.

But while recent international attention has galvanized opponents of the current law, it has also roused defenders. Conservative religious parties have threatened mayhem if the law is changed, an idea they deem a Western conspiracy. One cleric in northwest Pakistan went further, promising $6,000 to anyone who kills Bibi, the Christian woman.

'A baseless charge'

Amid this debate, Mirza Shahid Baig, Shafique's lawyer, sticks to technical arguments. The wrong police investigated, he said, and there was no serious look at Shafique's side of the story.

"I am a very true lover of the holy prophet, but this case was totally false," Baig said one recent afternoon at his dusty basement office in the bustling city of Lahore. "Whether the law is correct or not correct according to the morality, this is not my job."

In Kulluwal, most everyone seems to agree that a blasphemer deserves death. But they are certain Shafique was not one.

The investigators and witnesses who testified against him have all left town, and no one else recalls seeing Shafique's alleged rampage. Ahmed said his father is ready to recant in court.

"This is a baseless charge," said Ahmed, calmly sipping tea with Shafique's parents on a recent day. "The issue is religious, so it had an influence on the police. It interfered with the investigation."

Another resident, Mohammed Ibrahim, is the brother of the politician who accused Shafique and the father of one youth who testified. Ibrahim said his son has since told him he was pressured to lie, and that his brother forced police to file charges.

"He thought of himself as important, as someone who could not be challenged politically," Ibrahim said of his brother, who, he added, has moved to Canada.

To some Kulluwal residents, the whole affair proves elders should resolve disputes, not courts.

Shafique, meanwhile, writes letters to his family from solitary confinement. In one recent missive, he said that prison guards avoid touching him. He understands, he wrote, for he reserves no sympathy for blasphemers.

"My heart weeps for the innocent ones," he wrote. "But I have no words of sympathy for the sinners . . . I would have killed them myself if I could."

Hussain is a special correspondent.

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