Samuel Masih was buried in Lahore, Pakistan, yesterday following injuries he received from a Muslim policeman who beat the 27-year-old Christian with a hammer as he lay in his hospital bed recovering from a bout of tuberculosis.
Masih had been in jail since Aug. 23, 2003, awaiting trial on charges of blasphemy under Pakistan’s strict “Law 295” – which forbids desecrating the Quran and “defiling” the name of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad. On the day of his arrest, Masih was collecting garden rubbish, which he heaped temporarily against the wall of a mosque in Lahore’s Lawrence Gardens section while collecting more that he planned to burn later. This action brought the blasphemy charge, which carries a maximum two-year prison sentence.
He had been held in the Lahore Central Jail for nine months when he had a severe tuberculosis attack and was transferred to a local hospital. According to reports in the Lahore Daily Times, the constable assigned to guard the prisoner’s room at the hospital, Officer Faryad Ali, savagely beat Masih with a hammer used for cutting bricks after learning he had been accused of strewing garbage near the mosque’s walls.
Faryad Ali, who has been jailed and charged with murder, reportedly told investigators it was his religious duty as a Muslim to kill the Christian man. According to Voice of the Martyrs, he is reported to have said, “I have offered my religious duty for killing the man. I’m spiritually satisfied and ready to face the consequences.”
“This is another example of the danger our brothers and sisters in Pakistan face every day,” said Todd Nettleton, VOM spokesman.
Baboo Emmanuel, Masih’s father, told the Daily Times he did not know his son was in jail until approximately four months ago. A whitewasher by trade, Masih was frequently away for extended periods while working. But even when informed of his incarceration for blasphemy, the family did not pursue the case because of fear of the police. No one defended him on the charge.
“Poverty, society’s pressure and the lawless wild police system prevented me from following my son’s case, Masih’s father told the Daily Times.
The Christian minority’s fear of the police and Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were themes echoed by Lahore Archbishop Lawrence J. Saldanha who led the procession of 500 mourners at Masih’s funeral.
“Sections 295 B and C and Section 298 A, B and C of the PPC are vague and can be interpreted in ways that cause suffering and death and devastating pain to society,” Saldanha said. “The existence of these laws gives rise to injustices. It is usually the poor and weak who are the victims.”
Masih’s father, emboldened by the support of several human-rights non-governmental organizations and media publicity, is asking the government to investigate the basis for the blasphemy charge against his son. No one in his senses would attempt blasphemy, he insisted to the Daily Times. “Particularly a person who belongs to a minority would never dare to do so because of the extreme sentence provided in the law,” he said. Emanuel believes his son became a victim because he belonged to a minority.
According to human rights groups, Pakistan’s blasphemy law is much abused and frequently used to settle personal grudges. Where convictions are made, most are overturned on appeal. However, Reuters notes that several Christians and Muslims accused of blasphemy have been killed by “religious fanatics” while in prison or police custody.
“This is a brutal act of terrorism committed by the police constable and a clear misuse of blasphemy law,” said Shahbaz Bhatti, president of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. “This is the time that government should abolish blasphemy law.”
President Pervez Musharraf has called for a review of Pakistan’s system of strict Islamic law, including the laws against blasphemy introduced in the 1970s during the regime of military dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq.
At first, the police reportedly refused to let the family take Masih’s body to the church for a Christian funeral, insisting they take the corpse home and bury him quickly. The assistant superintendent of police told the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan this was done to avoid any political protests.
“This is an individual’s case against an individual,” he said. “We do not want to make it a political issue.”
The family was latter permitted to take the body to Sacred Heart Cathedral for the funeral which was peaceful and without incident.