Pakistani Court Convicts Killers of Alleged Blasphemer
An anti-terrorism court in Pakistan has convicted and sentenced 88 people for murdering a Sri Lankan national for allegedly committing blasphemy. This is a far different result than many of the cases where a Christian accused of blasphemy has been killed or attacked by a violent mob. Could Pakistan be starting to provide justice in these cases?
On December 3, 2021, a mob of hundreds of enraged Muslim factory workers killed Priyantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan Buddhist, who was a manager at a garment factory in Sialkot, Pakistan. After someone reported that Kumara had torn a poster that contained Islamic verses, a mob of about 800 men gathered at the Rajco factory, dragged Kumara out of the factory into the street, beat him with kicks, stones, and iron rods, and then set him on fire.
Soon after the murder, recently ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan said: “I am overseeing the investigations & let there be no mistake all those responsible will be punished with full severity of the law.”
The police arrested over 145 people and filed a case under various sections of the Pakistan Penal Code and the Anti-Terrorism Act. After an unprecedentedly speedy investigation, the Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) indicted 89 people; and in an even more unprecedentedly speedy trial, the court convicted 88 people and only acquitted one.
On April 18, 2022, Judge Natasha Naseem Sipra of the ATC sentenced six people to death, nine to life imprisonment, 72 to two years’ imprisonment, and one to five years’ imprisonment.
Justice has been served and Kumara’s family can have some respite, even though a precious life was lost over an allegation of blasphemy. No investigation was done to see if Kumara had actually desecrated the Quranic verses. Even if he had, Pakistani law prescribes a mandatory life imprisonment for desecrating the Quran. But the mob did not wait for any investigation. They were the accusers, judges, and the executioners.
Kumara’s death isn’t the only instance of mob attack that has displayed such brutality and ended with the killing of an innocent person. Many have suffered the same fate in Pakistan. ATC Judge Sipra correctly noted in the recent judgment that “such type[s] of incidents are increasing where a person is [beaten] to death by a mob on the allegation of blasphemy.”
In 2009, in a series of attacks in Gojra, mobs of enraged Muslims burned seven Christians to death over a similar allegation that a Christian had desecrated papers containing verses from the Quran during a wedding ceremony. Even though the police registered a blasphemy case against three Christians, Mukhtar Masih and Talib Masih and his son Imran Masih, the local Imam made an announcement from a mosque’s loudspeaker, asking Muslims to gather and teach the Christians a lesson. Mobs gathered and attacked, looted, and burned down over 100 Christian homes. Seven Christians were burned to death. The police charged 70 people, but they were later released on bail. In June 2011, an anti-terrorism court acquitted all 70.
In January 2011, Governor Salman Taseer was gunned down by his own security guard simply because Mr. Taseer called blasphemy laws “black laws” and was appealing the government to pardon Asia Bibi, a Christian mom who was sentenced to death over a false allegation of blasphemy. Mr. Taseer’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was received at the courthouse by a mob, including lawyers, who showered him with flowers. Despite the support of the radical mobs, Qadri was convicted and sentenced to death. The judge who convicted him had to flee the country because he faced death threats. In February 2016, Qadri’s death sentence was carried out.
In March 2013, an enraged mob torched over 140 Christian houses in Joseph Colony over an allegation of blasphemy against one Christian. While Sawan Masih, the Christian man who was accused of uttering blasphemous remarks about the Prophet Muhammad, was sentenced to death, an anti-terrorism court acquitted all the persons who were charged with attacking the Christian homes.
And, remember the Christian couple, Shahzad and his pregnant wife Shama, who were brutally beaten and thrown into a burning brick kiln in November 2014 over an allegation that Shama had desecrated pages that contained Quranic verses. The police charged 103 people. An anti-terrorism court sentenced five men to death, gave varying jail terms to 10, and acquitted the rest. The Lahore High Court later reversed the convictions of two of the five who were sentenced to death.
These are just a few examples from the long list of violent mob attacks and vigilante killings in blasphemy cases, the most recent being the murder of a 21-year-old female teacher who was killed by three women simply because one of the killer’s relatives, a 13-year-old girl, had a dream that the victim had blasphemed and must be killed.
The recent convictions in the case of Mr. Kumara’s brutal murder appear to be different from the results of most of the previous mob attacks, especially in which Christians were the victims. This is the only mob attack in which an investigation and trial were done within the period of about four months. This is also the only case in which most of the people charged received punishments. Given these differences, one can expect that the sentences will be carried out in this case. All of this appears to be because Kumara was a foreign national whose government intervened and sought justice. While this is a good result, it is sad that Pakistan’s own citizens, especially religious minorities, don’t get the same level of justice.