Blasphemy trials in Pakistan reveal a broken justice system
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."
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.