Pakistani Defense Lawyers Threatened

Monday, June 10, 2002

Extremists Vow to Kill Men Defending Alleged 'Blasphemers'

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, June 10 (Compass) -- Two lawyers known for defending Pakistani Christians and Muslims over alleged blasphemy charges received death threats over the weekend, part of a series of overt warnings dished out to perceived "enemies of Islam" by local extremists during the past two weeks.

Both Christian lawyer Pervaiz Aslam Chaudhry in Lahore and Muslim lawyer Khalil Tahir in Faisalabad confirmed to Compass today that unknown men on motorbikes had targeted them and their families on Saturday, June 8.

Chaudhry, the senior legal counsel for the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), said he was driving to court on the morning of June 8 with another colleague when four men on motorbikes forced his car to stop along the main street in Lahore's Gulberg district.

"They shouted abuses and filthy language at me and my associate, Justin Gill," Chaudhry told Compass by telephone from Lahore. "This is your last warning," the men shouted at him. "Stop this case of Wajih ul-Hussan today, or you will be killed." Although he did not recognize any of them, Chaudhry said he could identify the men in a line-up.

Shaken by the direct threats, Chaudhry went on to the Lahore Additional Sessions Court for the hearing set on ul-Hussan's case. Accompanied by CLAAS coordinator Joseph Francis, he filed an application reporting the threats before Justice Sardar Ahmed Naeem, who promptly ordered a continuance hearing on the case, now set for June 13.

Chaudhry said he was threatened in person two other times recently, first on May 29 and then again on June 1. His accusers labeled him "an enemy of Islam," he said, for representing ul-Hassan, a young Muslim jailed on what he called "flimsy hearsay," as well as a number of Christians accused of blasphemy. Since then, he has occasionally noticed someone following him on a motorcycle.

"Even my wife has received several telephone calls from unknown persons," Chaudhry said. "They threatened her with dire consequences if she did not prevent me from defending these cases."

According to a June 3 report in the "Daily Times" newspaper, Chaudhry filed applications about these specific threats with the local courts, provincial police and bar councils in Punjab province, requesting legal protection so he could plead his cases "fairly and justly."

So far, however, Chaudhry has not been provided with police escorts. He is due to appear before the Lahore High Court tomorrow to appeal verdicts against Saleem and Rasheed Masih, two Christian brothers jailed since 1999.

In Faisalabad, attorney Khalil Tahir had already gone to the local sessions court to defend jailed Christian Ranjha Masih on Saturday morning, June 8, when four men on motorbikes pulled up at his home. Although the men knocked on the door, his wife refused to open it, demanding that they identify themselves. Just then her parents came walking up to the house, scaring off the intruders.

On May 28, Tahir told Compass, he and his wife received a late-night phone call from a man identifying himself as Shabeeb Basra. When Tahir's wife answered the phone, the man declared that because her husband was defending Ranjha Masih, "Your children, you and your husband will be killed." When Tahir took the receiver, the caller repeated the threat and concluded, "Your days are numbered now. Soon you will be no more."

Tahir told Compass that he is now being accompanied by plainclothes police everywhere he goes, and that his wife, children and parents-in-law have been moved to a secure location.

"For myself, I don't have any fears," he said, stating that he would appear on June 19 for the continuance on Ranjha Masih's case, which he represents on behalf of the Catholic Church's National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP). "But for my children .."

Both lawyers are married with three young children.

In October 1997, an extremist gunman shot and killed a moderate Muslim judge of the Lahore High Court who had acquitted two Christians on blasphemy charges for lack of evidence.