42 suspects in lynching of Muslims offered freedom if they convert to Islam. By Our Middle East Correspondent

By Our Pakistan Correspondent

LAHORE
, Pakistan, April 3, 2017 (Morning Star News) – Relatives of jailed Christians in Pakistan said police who tortured the prisoners offered freedom if the detainees converted to Islam, and that a public prosecutor made the same offer in exchange for bail.

The accusations come days after the government of Pakistan decried forced conversions of people of minority faiths.

The 42 Christians are accused in the lynching of two Muslims suspected of involvement in the twin suicide attacks on churches in Lahore’s Christian neighborhood of Youhanabad on March 15, 2015. At least 17 people, including two policemen, died in the suicide attacks, which targeted Christ Church Youhanabad and St. John’s Catholic Church during Sunday Mass.

Deputy District Public Prosecutor (DDPP) Syed Anees Shah repeatedly pressured the Christians to convert to Islam in return for their freedom, according to family members and a lawyer of the Christian prisoners. The attorney, who is representing some of the accused, said the public prosecutor made the offer to the detainees whenever they appeared in court.

“None of the under-trial prisoners have been attracted to the counsel’s offer of clemency in exchange of renouncing their faith,” he said, adding that the DDPP’s coercion of the accused indicated that the prosecution did not have a strong case against them.

The father of one of the accused told Morning Star News that all the Christian prisoners had rejected the prosecutor’s offer.

“Almost all the accused Christians told the prosecutor that they would prefer to die than renounce their faith in Christ,” he said.

Requesting anonymity for security reasons, he said that police officers made similar offers of freedom for conversion to Islam as they tortured the Christians detained in private cells soon after the lynching. All of the accused assert that police have falsely implicated them in the case.

Prosecutor Shah declined to return phone calls by Morning Star News seeking comment.

Punjab Province spokesman Ahmed Ali Khan said that the government had taken “serious notice” of the issue and had taken Shah off the case.

“Muhammad Azar has replaced Anees Shah at the anti-terrorism court, and he will not be allowed prosecution of any case in the future,” Khan told Morning Star News. “Shah has been asked to report to the office of the Punjab Prosecutor General till further orders.”

He said the accusations embarrassed the government as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif a few days ago condemned forced conversions of minorities and vowed stern punishment for perpetrators.

“The DDPP’s actions have put a question mark on the judicial process as well,” Khan said. “He should have dealt with the case on merit rather than blackmailing the accused. This is a shameful act, and the government condemns it strongly.”

Informed that police interrogators had tried to force the accused Christians to recant their faith, the spokesman said that he was not privy to this information as no Christian leader or organization had brought it to the government’s attention.

“Forced conversion is a very serious matter, and we do not condone any such action by government officials,” he said.

Khan declined to comment on the guilt or innocence of the accused as the trial is still underway. He denied suggestions that the Punjab government was biased against Christians.

Shunila Ruth, a Christian provincial lawmaker from the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has submitted a resolution in the Punjab Assembly against the DDPP’s attempt to forcibly convert the Christians on trial.

Ruth said the prosecutor’s actions signaled charges would be dropped against those who changed their religion, and that being a Muslim meant one was above the law.

“Discrimination against the Christians should be stopped immediately,” she said.

The 2015 suicide attacks outside two church buildings in Youhanabad triggered violent protests in which the two Muslims were burned to death after a mob suspected them as accomplices. They were identified as Babar Noman, a garment worker, and Hafiz Naeem, a glass cutter, of the same locality.

An anti-terrorism court on Jan. 10, 2016, indicted 42 suspects for the lynching. The suspects pleaded not guilty. So far no one has been arrested for carrying out or facilitating the blasts at Youhanabad. The accused Christians, however, have been in prison for the last two years. Ten of a total 92 witnesses have recorded their statements in the case.

Tortured
Asserting that all the Christians accused in the killing were victims of the Punjab government’s bias against the minority community, the father of one of the Christian suspects said that all of those detained were innocent.

“My son used to make a living as a rickshaw driver,” he said. “On the day of the incident, he had just returned to Youhanabad after dropping a passenger when his vehicle was stopped by a mob protesting against the suicide bombings at the churches. He barely stayed at the scene for a few minutes to see what was going on and somehow managed to bring his three-wheeler home. The police took him two nights later, claiming that he was involved in the lynching.”

He said police showed no arrest warrant to the family as plain-clothes police whisked his son away.

“My son was taken to a private torture cell of the Crimes Investigation Agency (CIA) in Kahna, where a large number of Christian men and boys from Youhanabad were already detained,” he said. “The detainees were brutally tortured there and forced to ‘confess’ their involvement in the lynching.”

The detainees’ formal arrests were announced many days after they were picked up, and most of them could barely stand due to the inhumane torture they had suffered, he said.

“It is then my son and the other detainees revealed that during their ‘interrogation’ at the CIA torture cell, an unidentified senior police officer had offered to set them free if they converted to Islam, but all of them stood their ground and refused to renounce their faith in Christ,” he said.

He added that the case against them reeked of the government’s mala fide toward Christians.

“I could not believe my eyes when I read in the supplementary FIR of the case that the police have accused my son of killing the two Muslims with a sanitary pipe made of plastic,” he said. “If this charge doesn’t prove the government’s mala fide, I don’t know what else will? Forty two Christian families are suffering for the last two years for a crime they haven’t committed.”

Relatives’ repeated appeals for a fair investigation have fallen on deaf ears, he said.

“The government is already anti-Christian, and we don’t expect any sympathy from it, but the attitude of Christian lawmakers from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is more heart-wrenching,” he said. “All of them know that the 42 people behind bars are innocent, but they haven’t done anything to help us. I don’t know what will happen to my son in this court, but I have faith that the Lord will surely judge those behind our plight fairly.”