PAKISTAN – 112 Muslim suspects acquitted of burning Christian Districtta
All 112 suspects accused of ransacking, looting and then burning a Christian neighbourhood in Lahore’s Joseph Colony on 9 March 2013 were acquitted recently by a Pakistani anti-terrorism judge, Chaudhry Muhammad Azam.
The stated reason was that prosecution witnesses failed to identify the suspects, while the prosecutor general said “the evidence was not enough to prove the crime”, but that the incident “brought [a] bad name to Pakistan”.
Immediately after the attack, Mian Shahbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of the Punjab, had visited Joseph Colony and stated that Christians had equal rights and should be protected by the state. The Punjab government vowed to rebuild the community and provide land rights to the residents, but this did not happen.
Local church leaders expressed their disappointment about the court’s decision.
“This is quite upsetting,” said Cecil Shane Chaudhry, executive director of the Catholic bishops’ justice and peace commission. “Basically, this means that, despite video footage, documents and pictures of thousands rampaging through Christian properties, the court has not found anyone guilty. So mobs are free to do whatever they want.
“Perhaps the police are not properly doing their job and rounding up the right people. Also, there is community-based pressure on the lower courts. If there was no substantial evidence, the court should also accept the bail of Sawan Masih.”
The mob attacked the Christian district after Masih was accused of blasphemy. Masih has been in jail ever since and in March 2014 was sentenced to death for blasphemy and fined 200,000 rupees (around $2,000). He has appealed to Lahore’s High Court. Blasphemy allegations often have ulterior motives, with accusations used to settle personal scores or disputes over land.
Samson Salamat, chairman of the Rawadari Tehreek (Movement for Tolerance) group, added: “We are worried. Once again history has repeated itself and we are denied justice. None of the culprits in anti-Christian attacks have been apprehended in the past. While this gives a negative message to persecuted religious minorities, it also encourages extremists.”
“Perhaps the Church leadership should be more active in pursuing the court proceedings in such cases. Those who are directly affected usually settle their financial losses via back-channel diplomacy, which means there are no witnesses.”