The latest news on the case of the communal killing of Christians in Gojra in Punjab in 2009 is that a Faisalabad Anti-Terrorism Court has released all the 70 accused on bail because of ‘no-show’ of some witnesses against them.
The Christian colony in Gojra was attacked by sectarian terrorists on the excuse that the Christians there had committed collective blasphemy at a wedding. Using special explosives, the terrorists blew up 60 houses and killed eight Christians. The incident shook the world and shocked many ordinary right-thinking Muslims. This was one of a series of violent acts perpetrated against Christians in Pakistan on the pretext of blasphemy. Almost a year later, a court is once again helpless and has let the killers go, albeit on bail. However, given the time lag, it is unlikely that anyone will ever be convicted for what happened in Gojra.
The case had 70 suspects and 185 witnesses but, as it proceeded, witnesses kept slipping out. The latest decision to bail out the accused was taken after five witnesses apparently left the country. The Christian community knew that the killers would go scot-free in the end and are now pointing fingers at political pressure. The killers, belonging to a sectarian organisation which has a wing aligned with al Qaeda in North Waziristan, enjoy, according to the view of many neutral observors, a ‘comfort level’ with elements in the Punjab government.
This is nothing unusual. If those killed are non-Muslims, the killers are sure to walk free. The al Qaeda-aligned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi leader Akram Lahori has been under trial in Multan with witnesses gradually slipping out of prosecution because of fear of being killed. The government looks on with dread, knowing that the case will end the same way as that of another sectarian killer, Malik Ishaq, who has been let off by a court in Lahore. Ishaq is quite ironically being kept in custody by the Punjab government on the legal commitment of paying a ‘monthly sustenance’ to his family!
Judges have been known to complain that they are not protected against threats. If the accused is linked to al Qaeda, he can threaten even the president of the country from his cell, as happened with President Musharraf when he received threatening calls from convict Umar Sheikh from a jail in Sindh. Similarly, there is no protection for witnesses once they unwisely enlist themselves in a case considered open and shut because of its blatancy. Most Pakistanis have a foreshortened view of law: They complain about terrorists surrendered to America without trial but pay no regard to what is happening to the courts where such trials would be held.
A well-known lawyer who has studied these cases in some detail had this to say of some prominent cases: “Individuals arrested in connection with some of the worst attacks in Pakistan (and India) have managed to simply walk free. Those convicted in the 2002 beheading of The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl have yet to exhaust all their avenues for appeal. The three men arrested for the suicide attack on French engineers in Karachi have been acquitted. Maulana Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid‚ the site of a violent showdown between security forces and besieged militants‚ was released for lack of evidence‚ despite supporting and encouraging unsavoury and unlawful activities. Ditto for those arrested for the Benazir Bhutto assassination‚ the attacks on the Marriott Hotel and the Danish Embassy”.
The Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997 is vague and needs changes to include effective protection for judges and witnesses, but a bigger hurdle than that is the hidden political alliances the killers are able to make with politicians in power. The Act of 1997 was sought to be improved through ordinances, but that provision has lapsed after the 18th Amendment disallowed the president from decreeing them into effect again. Who is going to look after this lacuna in law? The politicians are busy pulling one another down and venting spleen against America, while terrorists captured by the army and arrested by the police are laughing all the way to the court.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 9th, 2011.
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