Released Muslim Cleric Threatens Chianwali’s Christian Villagers
by Barbara G. Baker
ISTANBUL, December 5 (Compass) -- After nine months in jail, two suspects accused of last year’s deadly Christmas night attack against a Pakistani village church have been released on bail for the duration of their trial.
By order of the Lahore High Court, Muslim cleric Mohammed Afzal and a young man identified by his first name Dildar were set free on October 2. Both reportedly were required to pay 100,000 rupees ($1,667) each in bail.
After the two men were released from prison, they went directly to Chianwali, a remote village near Daska, 40 miles from Lahore. There, in a small Presbyterian chapel, three young girls were killed and another 13 Christians injured by grenades thrown into a children’s Christmas program last December 25.
As soon as the two released suspects arrived in Chianwali, the cleric’s local Muslim supporters celebrated by firing guns in the air and distributing sweets throughout the community.
“They were shouting slogans, saying that they were going to teach the Christians a lesson,” a church source reported.
Since then, a number among the village’s 20 Christian families have come under increasing pressures to agree to a compromise and withdraw the case filed against the Muslim defendants.
“They are receiving verbal threats, even from some of the respectable persons of the village,” said one of the lawyers representing Aslam Pervaiz Masih, 40, the plaintiff who filed legal charges against Afzal and two other men.
“They are telling the Christians, ‘You have to compromise, after what has happened, or you will face the consequences,’” the lawyer said. “They say that Christians won’t be able to live anymore in the same society, in the same village, unless they compromise.”
Masih himself lost one eye in the grenade attack, and his younger brother was blinded in both eyes.
Dildar and a third suspect named Rashid, who has yet to appear before the court, are accused of carrying out the attack in Chianwali. Local police claim that Rashid has managed to elude arrest, although church sources believe that the authorities are holding him in protective custody.
Afzal, described as a short, stocky man about 60 years old, has been charged with instigating the violence by repeated hatemongering against Christians in his mosque sermons in Daska. The bearded cleric ran an Islamic school near the small chapel that was attacked, and was an open supporter of the militant Jaish-e-Mohammed (Army of Mohammed) group banned in Pakistan.
Ironically, the case is being heard in Gujranwala before the Anti-Terrorist Courts, allegedly set up to conduct “speedy trials” against suspects involved in acts of terrorism. Although trial proceedings began last spring, very little progress has been made so far, Masih’s lawyers from the Center for Legal Aid and Assistance (CLAAS) in Lahore told Compass.
The two defense lawyers, one of whom is a retired judge from the Gujranwala Anti-Terrorist Court, have used a variety of delay tactics to postpone the hearings, CLAAS lawyers said. Frequently one or both would fail to appear for a scheduled hearing, causing the judge to postpone the session for several more weeks.
A number of times the defense delayed the proceedings by applying again and again for bail for their clients, even though this was refused each time by Special Judge Mirza Rafi ul-Din.
“Judge Mirza Rafi is doing everything correctly,” a CLAAS lawyer commented, “but he is somewhat under pressure because of that lawyer who used to be a judge in the same court.”
With a number of witnesses yet to testify before the court, followed by cross-examination procedures, the trial is expected to take another two months or more, one lawyer said.
In the last hearing on December 3, one of the attending doctors recorded the medical certificates he had issued on 10 of the injured. “But he will have to be cross-examined next week, on December 10,” the lawyer said, “and we are not expecting much then, because one of the defense lawyers says he is not going to be available that day.”
Meanwhile, CLAAS lawyers are preparing affidavits from Chianwali Christian villagers who have been threatened directly by the released cleric over the past two months, in order to file a petition before the Lahore High Court to cancel his bail order.
“We have proof that this maulvi [cleric] has wrongly used the concession of bail given to him by the court,” a CLAAS lawyer declared. “So we are going to file a petition for his bail to be cancelled in the next few days.”
Meanwhile, President Pervez Musharraf reiterated this week that his government was committed to “stamp out religious extremism” in Pakistan. In a speech on December 3, Musharraf stated that most Pakistanis were moderate Muslims. “Therefore a handful of extremists cannot be allowed to spread their vision of Islam in society,” the president declared.