Imran Latif, 22, a resident of Lahore, was sitting in his house near Pir Makki shrine on the sunny afternoon of November 11, 2010 when the doorbell rang. On opening the door, reportedly, two men armed with pistols asked Latif to accompany them. A few yards from the house, they pumped five bullets into Latif’s body before escaping on their motorbike. The bullets killed him on the spot.
Latif was on bail from a local court against charges of burning the pages of Holy Quran — blasphemy, as is commonly said. He was arrested six months ago and was acquitted in November.
Media reports, quoting police investigators, term the murder a possible ‘consequence’ of the blasphemy case. Police have yet to trace the killers. “We cannot say anything until we arrest the murderers,” investigating police inspector Rafique Ahmed. He does not rule out the possibility of Latif being a victim of extrajudicial killing over charges of blasphemy.
In the last 30 years, incidents of extrajudicial killings of blasphemy accused have been common. In July, 2010 two Christian brothers accused of disseminating a blasphemous letter were shot dead outside a court in Faisalabad. Then a Christian woman Asia Bibi was awarded death sentence for blasphemy by a local court in district Nankana Sahib.
Supposedly, judges face immense pressure while deciding these cases. Take the case of Lahore High Court Judge, Arif Iqbal Bhatti, who was assassinated in his chambers after retirement at Lahore High Court in 1997. The killer said he targeted the judge because he was on the bench that acquitted two Christian men, Salamat and Rehmat Masih, accused in a blasphemy case.
“About 40 blasphemy accused have been killed extra judicially since 1986,” says Rizwan Paul, Director LFA (Life for All), a non-government organization working for human rights.
According to record compiled by the organization, out of these 40, 16 were Christians, 14 Muslims, five Ahmadis and two Hindus.
“Extrajudicial killings in blasphemy cases are not pursued by the victims’ families out of fear of being further victimised,” Paul adds. “It should be the state’s responsibility to follow up such killings. Unfortunately, such killings are put under the carpet by the state and the court as it invites wrath.”
According to press reports, the first such extrajudicial killing took place in 1991 when blasphemy accused Naemat Ahmad was shot dead by some unknown persons. Later, a Muslim Farooq Sajid was beaten to death by a mob in Gujranwala. Similarly, Manzoor Masih was gunned down outside the District and Sessions Court after a hearing in 1990s.
Accused have also fallen victim to extrajudicial killings inside jails. Naseem Bibi, Muhammad Yousaf, Samuel Masih (shockingly killed by a policeman), and another old man were killed in detention while facing the trial or after being convicted by courts.
“This is unfortunate that trials of persons involved in extrajudicial killings are hardly followed up by the state or decided by the courts,” says Mahboob Ahmad Khan, a researcher with Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “There are only two cases in which the killers of blasphemy accused have been awarded sentence,” Khan adds, recalling his office record. “One of them had killed a blasphemy accused in Kasur and the other in Faisalabad.”
Many blasphemy accused, even after acquittal, live in isolation and cannot mingle with their families because of life threats. “A political will is required to resolve such cases,” adds Khan.
The phenomenon takes a horrible turn when a charged mob targets a specific community, locality or a group by burning their houses, looting their valuables and resorting to mass killing. Two years ago angry Muslims set afire two localities of Christian community in Gojra, Punjab, and a nearby village to punish a blasphemy accused. Again, a few years back, a similar incident happened in Sangla Hill, Punjab, where a mob burnt dozens of houses of the Christian community and two churches over the charges of blasphemy.
“This is up to the state and the administration to control such emotional mobs,” says Mufti Munib-ur-Rehman, a Karachi-based senior Islamic cleric, who thinks that English media is toeing the western agenda by writing against the blasphemy laws.
“We have repeatedly proposed that immediate police report must be lodged against any accused and the matter should be directly referred to the Federal Shariah Court. We are against the misuse of this law but not against the law,” he says.
“People killing the accused or the acquitted persons must be tried and dealt with according to law,” he asserts.
Former Federal Law Minister and senior advocate, Dr Khalid Ranjha, believes extrajudicial killings happen due to weak state mechanism. “The solution lies in educating the society and controlling this provocation.”
He also blamed the government for encouraging trends like fake encounters in Punjab that create a mindset for extrajudicial killings.
The writer is a Islamabad-based human rights activist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org