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Pakistani Christian Charged with 'Blasphemy' for Text Message

February 5, 2009

Defender of minority rights allegedly framed for making legal challenges in church land dispute.

By Michael Larson

ISTANBUL, February 5 (Compass Direct News) - More than 100 protestors last week surrounded a Pakistani courthouse and chanted death threats against a Punjabi Christian said to be framed for sending a "blasphemous" text message on his cell phone.

Rawalpindi police arrested Hector Aleem, 51, on Jan. 22 and detained him on charges of sending a text message that insulted the Islamic prophet Muhammad. At his Jan. 27 hearing at the Rawalpindi Sessions Court, crowds gathered and began shouting death threats.

His attorney, Malik Tafik, told Compass that a local man allegedly framed Aleem for the charges because Aleem has made legal challenges on behalf of Christians involved in a land dispute. Aleem directs a small agency that often defends the rights of Christians.

Last November, a scholar associated with the national Islamist political movement Sunni Tehreek received a text message claiming to have come from Aleem. The religious scholar registered blasphemy charges against Aleem on Nov. 28 at the Rawalpindi police station. 

Police raided Aleem's house at 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 22 and assaulted him, his wife, and his two daughters. They also stole 50,000 Pakistan rupees (US$630) worth of valuables and broke pictures of Jesus hanging on their walls, according to a report from the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). 

Authorities charged him with violating sections 295c (blasphemy) and 109bb (abetting) of the Pakistani criminal code. Aleem was transferred to a Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court for a second hearing on Jan. 30, where an even larger crowd of protestors gathered shouting that his life would not be spared. Many of those who came to protest were associated with Sunni Tehreek, which has been involved in violent sectarian clashes with other Islamist movements in the last decade.

"There were about 150 people protesting that Aleem should be handed over to them," Tafik said. "And there were many journalists, two news stations, and lawyers who came out to protest against him."

Aleem is detained at the Adiyala Jail in Rawalpindi. During his incarceration, police have mistreated him and denied him adequate food and access to medicine for his heart condition. He told lawyers that police have not allowed him to meet with his family and referred to him as "choohra" (sweeper), a derogatory term for Pakistani Christians to designate them as the lowest rung of society. 

At a hearing at an anti-terrorism court on Monday (Feb. 2), Judge Sakhi Mohammad Kohut exonerated him of blasphemy charges but did not clear him of abetting. A government official told Compass that the judge's decision was heavily influenced by Islamic extremists attending the open court hearing who told the judge, "If you release [Aleem], then we will kill him outside."

At the hearing, the judge implicated the man who allegedly framed Aleem - Bashar Kokar, previously charged multiple times with fraud - accusing him of using his cell phone to send a blasphemous message against Muhammad. Kokar was charged with blasphemy and arrested later that day. But court evidence shows the original text message came from an unregistered mobile number that pertained to neither Kokar nor Aleem, sources said - exonerating Aleem, but also making it difficult to prove that Kokar framed him. Khushdil Khan Malik, deputy secretary of Pakistan's Ministry of Human Rights, said he believes the judge implicated Kokar as a scapegoat for the blasphemy charges in order to appease the extremists.

The next hearing will be held in March. Attorney Tafik told Compass he believes Aleem will be cleared of all charges because there is no evidence against him.

Targeted for Defending Christian Rights

Sources said they believe Aleem was framed due to his social activism as director of a small Non-Governmental Organization that lobbies for the rights of Pakistani Christians in Islamabad.

In November he became involved in a land dispute between a congregation and a local municipality that wanted to demolish their church building. He has been wrongfully implicated in the past for minor offenses, a government deputy said, particularly for his advocacy work against the Capital Development Authority, a municipal works agency that has been charged with unlawful confiscation and destruction of Christian property.

Aleem has been cleared of these minor offenses. The seriousness of the blasphemy charge, however, puts him and his family in danger. Besides his attorney, other legal advocates said they believe he will be cleared of all charges as there is no evidence that he sent the original text message.

Until then, his family is hiding underground due to threats of violence by Muslim extremists, said Joseph Francis, national director of CLAAS. And once he is released, it will be hard for Aleem to return to a normal life in Rawalpindi with the stigma of even unproven charges of blasphemy hanging over his head.

"What will happen after [the trial] is a matter of concern," said Malik of Pakistan's human rights ministry. "There have been many incidents of the sudden deaths of people charged with blasphemy."

As many of those hostile to him are members of Sunni Tehreek who are dispersed throughout Pakistan, he and his family would be targeted by local members of the organization if they fled to another city. The only solution may be to seek asylum in another country, a source told Compass.

Problematic Law

Blasphemy has been used frequently in Pakistani law as a tool to silence or intimidate non-Muslims, including another case this week.

Yesterday a pastor, his son, and his father were charged with blasphemy in the village of Baddomehli, 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Lahore. Muslim classmates of pastor Shafik Masih's teenage son claimed he had a blasphemous pamphlet in his backpack and began to assault him, according to a CLAAS report.

Realizing the danger of sectarian violence, the police chief of the region yesterday called on Christians to seek refuge as local Muslims were assembling a protest.

Christian members of Pakistan's Parliament have moved to strike the blasphemy laws from the national criminal code.

"In the past, only a superintendent of police could file blasphemy charges," attorney Tafik said. "But now a private person can register a case of blasphemy and it can be misused because anyone can use it."

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