Death sentences meted out to Christians, Muslim under draconian statute.By Our Pakistan Correspondent
LAHORE, Pakistan, June 29, 2016 (Morning Star News) – A Christian in Pakistan who reported an attempt to blackmail him for allegedly blaspheming Islam’s prophet was sentenced to death this week in a bizarre case riddled with police irregularities, sources said.
Anjum Naz Sindhu, 65-year-old Catholic owner of a prominent chain of schools in Gujranwala, received the death sentence on Monday (June 27) following conviction for blasphemy – as did the two men convicted of blackmailing him. Javed Naz, a Christian whose affiliation was not immediately known, and Naz’s Muslim friend Jaffar Ali, were also sentenced to death for concealing or otherwise handling a recording of remarks that allegedly blasphemed Muhammad.
Naz and Ali told police that Sindhu had committed blasphemy during a speech at Locus Science School last year, which Naz said he recorded on his cell phone, according to a First Information Report (FIR).
Sindhu’s brother, Asif Sindhu, told Morning Star News that Naz, who worked at one of the school’s that Anjum Sindhu owned, was using Pakistan’s blasphemy law to take vengeance because Sindhu had fired Naz from the school for leaking examination papers.
“Later Naz, with the help of his friend Jaffar Ali, started blackmailing my brother and started demanding extortion by claiming that they had an audio recording in which he had committed blasphemy,” Asif Sindhu said. “They uttered blasphemous words in my brother’s voice to get revenge for taking action against Javed Naz and later started demanding extortion.”
As any unsubstantiated blasphemy accusation can land an accused person in jail for months while awaiting trial under Pakistan’s widely condemned blasphemy statutes, Anjum Sindhu on May 15, 2015 paid 20,000 rupees (US$190) in extortion money to the two men, who then demanded another 50,000 (US$475) rupees from him.
After consulting with different religious elders and friends, Sindhu went to police and filed a complaint against Naz and Ali for blackmail, sources said.
A source close to the family said Sindhu has never said anything blasphemous or mocked Islam, given that he has successfully run a school business for many years and was revered by area Muslims.
“He took the extortion matter to the police because he was innocent and was not ready to be blackmailed any further for something he hadn’t done,” the source said on condition of anonymity. “He succumbed to the pressure of the blackmailers because of the fear of death for himself and his family members that comes with the charge of blasphemy in a country where one doesn’t really have to prove the accusation.”
All 11 witnesses in the case were police officers, according to Sindhu’s attorney. Police could have questioned Sindhu’s students or other faculty members about the alleged remarks or about whether any such speech took place, but they did not, attorney Arif Goraya said.
He told Morning Star News that his client had also been fined 500,000 rupees (US$4,730) in addition to being wrongly sentenced to death. Terms of the punishment have yet to be confirmed as the written verdict was not yet released as of this writing.
After Sindhu filed the complaint, police arrested Naz and Ali and recovered the 20,000 rupees from them, according to the FIR, which stated that Naz and Ali told police that Sindhu had committed blasphemy during a speech at his school, and that Naz had recorded it on his cell phone. Police raided Naz’s house and recovered the mobile phone and the memory card containing the alleged recording.
Police later booked Sindhu and Naz for committing blasphemy and recording it on a mobile phone, while Ali was booked for demanding extortion from Sindhu. The case was filed in an Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC).
ATC Gujranwala Judge Bushra Zaman handed down the death penalty to Sindhu, Naz and Ali for convictions related to blasphemy. Naz and Ali were sentenced to an additional 35-year imprisonment and each fined 800,000 rupees (US$7,570) for extortion.
Goraya said that Zaman had handed his client a death sentence in a case “full of gaps and sloppy investigation.”
“During the proceedings, I repeatedly brought to the court’s notice that there is no direct evidence against my client, and that there are several gaps in the investigation that make the entire process suspicious,” he said.
Goraya said that a forensic laboratory report notified the court that the lab lacked the equipment to make a 100 percent match of the voice on the audio clip with that of Sindhu. The court thus made its ruling largely on the basis of a transcript obtained from the audio recording, which does not directly incriminate Sindhu, the attorney said.
He added that Muhammad Shafique, a head constable who was the complainant in the FIR and also the main prosecution witness, retrieved cell phone memory cards on more than two occasions after the forensic tests and might have tried to manipulate the evidence.
Three mobile phones and two memory cards were confiscated from the accused, and Shafique deposited them in the police station’s storeroom the same day. Police then prepared the charges and moved all three men to jail.
“On May 25, 2015, Shafique retrieved the two memory cards from the police storeroom on the pretext that he was taking them to the forensic laboratory,” Goraya said. “The lab transcribed the audio but stated in its report that it lacks the equipment to effectively analyze the voice patterns on the audio clip and of the main accused. However, the report made a startling revelation – it said that it had analyzed three memory cards, not two as mentioned in the FIR.”
The lawyer said that in his defense argument he repeatedly pointed out that it was illegal for a police official, who is also the complainant in the case, to keep possession of vital evidence even if it were to be sent to a lab for analysis. Goraya said the judge ignored his pleas that Shafique, the complainant in the case, had been in possession of the alleged evidence more than once even after the forensic report was obtained from the laboratory.
“Why was the complainant allowed to retrieve the ‘evidence’ on his own?” Goraya said. “The third memory card was ‘seized’ after the challan was submitted, and that makes Shafique’s actions all the more suspicious.”
Since Islam prohibits listening to blasphemy, few in the judicial process actually heard the alleged remarks, he said. The attorney said that not once had he or the court listened to the audio clip allegedly containing the sacrilegious comments.
“As a Muslim, my faith restricts me from listening to any kind of blasphemy,” he said. “I did not insist that the court play the audio, and I don’t think the judge would have played it anyway, keeping in mind the sensitivities involving blasphemy.”
He said the judge based her verdict on the basis of the transcript of the audio clip.
“My client, Sindhu, was convicted of committing blasphemy while Javed Naz was condemned for intentionally concealing the alleged blasphemy for monetary reasons, and thus being equally culpable of the crime,” he said.
As in most such cases, the death sentence will be challenged in the High Court.
Several people in Gujranwala told Morning Star News that Sindhu and his family were well-respected in the city because of their contribution to education.
“Anjum Sindhu has been serving this city for over 20 years,” said the source close to the family. “The main branch of his school, which he was himself supervising as principal, has a student body of over 2,000 children. He has two sons and three daughters, all of whom are highly qualified professionals. It’s a shame that such a progressive Christian family is being made to suffer like this.”
The source said that the family had kept Sindhu’s arrest and detention in the blasphemy case a secret as they didn’t want to risk his life.
Asif Sindhu said his brother never had any conflicts with Muslims.
“My brother had thousands of Muslim students, and they never complained about his behavior,” he said. “My brother registered a complaint against Javed Naz and Jaffer Ali for demanding extortion, but instead he was booked and later sentenced to death over a fake charge of blasphemy. What kind of justice is this?”