Blaspemy 'Convict' Shot Dead in Pakistani Jail

Friday, June 14, 2002

Moderate Muslim's Appeal Case
by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, June 14 (Compass) -- A Pakistani Muslim convicted of alleged religious blasphemy was shot dead by a fellow prisoner yesterday afternoon in Lahore's Kot Lakhpat Central Jail.

M. Yousaf Ali was reportedly being transferred from his death-row cell in the jail's Block Seven to Block One about 2:30 p.m. when he was killed by a convicted murderer identified only as Tariq, sometimes using the alias Mota. Using a .30-caliber pistol, the assailant shot at Yousaf Ali at close range. Four of the bullets hit his chest, killing him instantly.

According to an article in today's "Daily Times," when the jail's superintendent arrived at the scene of the crime, the killer exclaimed loudly, "It was your duty, but I have done it." The "Dawn" newspaper reported that such panic spread in the jail after the murder that it took jail authorities four hours to bring the situation under control.

The jail superintendent announced his resignation a few hours after the crisis. Shortly afterwards, Deputy Inspector General of Prisons Sarfaraz Mufti put the jail's assistant superintendent, Bashir Chaudhry, and two jail wardens under arrest on charges of negligence.

Although Mufti refused to comment on the arrests, he told local press that an official inquiry had been ordered into the murder. A jail insider admitted to a "Daily Times" reporter that the unscheduled transfer of prisoners had been ordered by Chaudhry.

"It was not a routine transfer," a journalist who went to the Kot Lakhpat jail last night told Compass. "The fact that the murderer was standing there ready, brandishing his gun as he waited for the other prisoner to come, points toward complicity." According to one jail source, the murder weapon had been in Tariq's possession for four months.

Several Pakistani dailies reported that the killer belonged to the banned militant group, Sipah-e-Sahaba. But according to one journalist following the case, "He was just an ordinary murderer who had already killed three people. He had been convicted for one murder, and is still on trial for two other murders. Now he is guilty of four murders."

A moderate Pakistani Muslim about 60 years of age, Yousaf Ali was waiting for his appeal to be heard before the Lahore High Court of his sessions court conviction, handed down in August 2000. He was jailed more than four years ago on accusations that he had declared himself a prophet.

"He had a strong religious bent," a Lahore source who had read a book written by Yousaf told Compass today. "But he never made such claims in his book. He was convicted on the basis of a video recording of a religious gathering which he attended, where he simply said that he 'felt the presence of the Prophet Mohammed' there.

"He was a stable, decent man," the source stressed. "He had not committed blasphemy."

Yesterday's attack deepened concerns of local human rights advocates that similar attempts might be made against the lives of at least 75 other Pakistani citizens currently known to be incarcerated on allegations of blasphemy in the nation's jails.

With an increased number of Islamist activists jailed in recent months in the Pakistan government's crackdown on international terrorism, blasphemy prisoners now find themselves sharing cells with the most violent category of prisoners.

"Since they are associated with religious organizations like Al-Qaeda, they threaten and beat the [accused blasphemers] whenever they get the opportunity," the Lahore-based Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) noted in a statement released June 6. "Jail authorities are cognizant of these facts," CLAAS coordinator Joseph Francis noted.

"This is the new tactic of the extremist Muslim lobby in Pakistan," a Pakistani church leader told Compass today. "We are very worried about Ayub Masih, and all other prisoners accused on false blasphemy charges," he said. "All they have to do is take him out of his cell, and he could be killed, too."

Abid Hassan Minto, a lawyer currently defending two of the most prominent blasphemy prisoners on death row in Pakistan, told Compass today that the families of his clients have already asked for increased security for their jailed relatives, in the wake of yesterday's Kot Lakhpat murder.

Minto is representing Christian Ayub Masih in the first death sentence for blasphemy ever to be appealed before the Supreme Court of Pakistan. He is also defending Muslim professor Dr. Younis Sheikh before the Lahore High Court, appealing a death sentence handed down against him last October.

According to compiled lists from local human rights activists, Pakistani citizens jailed on blasphemy charges during the year 2001 alone included some 40 Muslims, 23 members of the Ahmadi sect, 10 Christians and two Hindus.

Amended 16 years ago under the dictatorial regime of Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan's vaguely written, harsh laws against blasphemy now require execution for anyone convicted of slandering the prophet Mohammed, with long jail terms and fines for "lesser" offenses against Islam and the Koran. Although no one has ever been executed, the accused spend years in jail while under trial and must flee the country after acquittal to avoid assassination.

Government leaders from the former prime minister, Benazair Bhutto, to the current chief executive, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, have tried to introduce procedural changes in the controversial laws, in order to prevent their abuse. But in the face of violent threats from Islamist political groups, Islamabad has backtracked every time, leaving the so-called "black laws" intact.