Unholy terror puts a boy on death row

PAKISTAN is in the throes of an Islamic Inquisition. A 14-year- old Christian boy sits in his cell on death row in Lahore's Kot Lakhpat prison waiting to be hanged. He is skinny, withdrawn and his downcast eyes seldom lift from his feet. His crime: Salamat Masih is convicted of blasphemy, of having scrawled graffiti on the mud wall of a mosque in his village, even though, at the time, the unschooled boy was incapable of writing his own name.

Salamat and an older Christian, Rehmat, 23, were convicted on 9 February in Lahore of insulting the Prophet Mohammed, which is punishable by nothing less than death. A third defendant, Salamat's uncle, Manzoor, was machine- gunned at a stop-light last April by Muslim fanatics while on his way back to prison from a court hearing. He died instantly. Salamat, riding in the same car, was also injured in the spray of bullets.

The court's sentence for the two Christians has jolted Pakistan. Even the Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, who at times seems scared to tangle with the country's powerful Islamic fundamentalists, said she was "shocked and surprised" by it. For many liberal, Western-educated Pakistanis the blasphemy case is a stark illustration of how badly their country is being convulsed by witch-hunts and religious persecution.

Pakistan is beset by an intolerant strain of Islam spilling over from Afghanistan, where mujahedin warriors defeated the Soviet Red Army and then fell to fighting among themselves over religious and ethnic feuds. Sectarian hatred - and guns from the Afghan war - are spreading into Pakistan's cities and villages. Extremist Muslim clergymen have been using a 1992 blasphemy law in the Pakistani penal code to settle scores with anyone who crosses them. Not only is blasphemy punished by a mandatory death sentence, but all it takes to charge someone is one man's testimony. Judges are often too petrified of the Muslim fundamentalists even to give bail to the accused.

Islamic extremists are using the law to target the country's Christian minority as well as the Hindus and smaller Islamic sects such as the Shias and the Ahmadis. "This country is gripped by a psychosis of fear," says IA Rehman, a human rights activist in Lahore. "Things aren't holding together anymore. These people think they can defy authority and get away with it."

Despite Ms Bhutto's liberal faade, she seems unwilling or unable to douse the religious bigotry inflaming her country. Under pressure from Muslim reactionaries, she backed down from amending the blasphemy law to add safeguards against the many false accusations that have arisen. More than 100 blasphemy cases are now being prosecuted. So far, though, the higher courts have saved any of those accused from being executed.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups criticise the courts and the police for letting Islamic extremists twist the laws. During the appeal hearing on Thursday in Lahore for Salamat and Rehmat, the prosecutor defied the two judges, telling them: "I don't respect you. I only respect the higher law of Allah." His insult was reinforced by a mob of green- turbanned extremists outside the courtroom shouting "Anyone who defends the infidels must die!" A defence counsel, Hina Jinani, said: "It is no longer a question of a few peoples' survival but of society's. Are we going to sit back and let it happen?"

Few of Pakistan's minorities can escape the wave of sectarian frenzy sweeping the country. Fanatic clergymen from the main Sunni sect have been persecuting the Shia and Ahmadi minorities, leading to dozens of killings. Hindus are also targeted: all cremation grounds have been shut down in Pakistan except for Sind province, so that, according to one human rights advocate, Aziz Siddiqui, "if a Hindu dies in Islamabad or Lahore, his body must be carried clear across the country to be cremated". More than 90 Hindu girls in recent years have been kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan claims.

In villages, the blasphemy law is clearly being used for settling scores. A social worker and Islamic scholar in Gujranwala was lynched by a mob last April simply on the rumour that he had burnt his Koran. It proved untrue. A Christian poet and schoolteacher was stabbed to death in January 1992 on the flimsiest suspicion that he had insulted the Prophet; when the murderer turned himself in, the police officer embraced him for his "heroic" action. Later it emerged that the accusation against the schoolteacher had been spread by a man jealous of his job. A doctor was jailed without bail for eight months for using a blessing from the Koran on his daughter's wedding announcement. In Lahore, zealots warned that anyone caught on the street celebrating the infidel's custom of New Year's Eve would be beaten to death.

But of all these incidents, the fundamentalists' vengefulness against the 14-year-old and his fellow Christian has probably raised the biggest outcry, both within Pakistan and internationally. The Foreign Office, not often moved to criticise justice within other Commonwealth countries, on Thursday expressed its concern to the Pakistan High Commissioner in London over the death penalty facing the two Christians.

This blasphemy case is extraordinary not only because Salamat is so young - he was 12 when arrested and has already spent five months in jail and a year out on bail hiding from Muslim fanatics - but because the evidence against the Christians is so feeble.

The trio of witnesses who saw the blasphemous graffiti on the mosque cannot agree on what was said or, indeed, if it was Salamat who wrote it, or Rehmat or the boy's murdered uncle. One of the witnesses, Maulvi Fazle Haqi, has since withdrawn his accusation, and it was proven in court that a second witness cannot even read. The counsel, Ms Jinani, said, "We believe that the judge was intimidated by all of the threats against him. Even so, he should have shown more integrity."

Many Muslims in Ratta Dhotran village held grudges against the three Christians. Rehmat had tried to put a loudspeaker on his church steeple; Manzoor had a run-in with a Muslim cleric and had chased off nomads stealing from his fields, and Salamat believes he was accused of insulting the Prophet simply because he had thrashed a Muslim boy in a quarrel over some pigeons. When Salamat stood in a Lahore courtroom to hear the death sentence passed on him, the youth seem unperturbed. "He was trying to hold himself up," Ms Jinani said. The boy told his lawyers: "It's alright. God will do justice."

The high court appeal is to resume tomorrow, and many Pakistanis believe it will overturn the death verdict. Yet the intimidation by Muslim zealots of anyone protecting the Christians is daunting. On Thursday, a mob outside the courthouse smashed the windscreen of defence counsel, Asma Jahangir, and nearly strangled her driver. Tomorrow's hearing could be worse. Fundamentalist maulvis, or clergymen, are exhorting every good Muslim to bring 100 other Muslims to the courthouse to demand the Christians' death.

"Even if they're freed," said Ms Jinani, "I don't see much chance of these people surviving if they stay in Pakistan." Leading article, page 20

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