After losing eight members of his family in the Gojra attacks on July 31 last year, Almas Hameed decided to leave Pakistan. The police have not made any progress in arresting those who killed his family members and his attempts to pursue the case were resulting in death threats.
“He was unable to deal with the pressure to withdraw his case so he decided to leave the country,” a member of a 13-people committee formed by the Christian community to pursue the case told The Express Tribune.
Eleven months have passed since eight Christians were burnt alive in Gojra, district Toba Tek Singh, and 60 houses looted and set on fire. Soon after, a case under section-7 of the Anti Terrorism Act was registered against 17 identified and 800 unidentified people, but none of the accused have so far been convicted.
The attacks were reportedly triggered by a complaint received by a mosque that a Christian had committed blasphemy at a wedding ceremony in a nearby village.
As tensions escalated over the accusation, a mob gathered in Gojra and decided to attack Christians in retaliation.
While hundreds of ‘unidentified suspects’ have been presented before the court over the past year, those who were nominated in the FIR have yet to be arrested. At least 17 suspects were nominated, of which eight were declared innocent during the investigations.
The Christian community alleges that the police released the accused because of political pressure.
Accused moving freely
William Prakash, the president of the committee, says that some of the men who attacked the houses are clearly identifiable in the video footage of the incident.
“Khalid Paanwala was the one who threw the Bible in the air and fired at it. He is clearly visible in the video, but the police have not arrested him. In fact, he roams freely in the locality,” says Prakash.
Funyas Paul, another member of the committee, said that the community is not satisfied with the progress of the case. “Qari Noor Muhammad, one of the men nominated in the FIR, was the one who motivated Muslims in the area [through the mosque’s loudspeakers] to attack the houses belonging to Christians. But he is yet to be arrested.”
Qadeer Awan, a noted political figure of the area, is another person who was nominated in the FIR but declared innocent, they complain. In fact, when Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif visited the area after the attacks, he met with Awan, who is a Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz supporter.
“More than 100 people recorded their statements against Awan, who is known to be affiliated with a banned militant organisation,” Paul Joseph, another member of the committee, says. Joseph adds that he has reports about Awan inviting trained militants from Jhang to assist in the attack, but was unable to prove this claim.
Meanwhile, Naveed Masih alias Naveed Fauji, one of the prime witnesses in the case, faces death threats by activists of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). He had given refuge to several Christians during the attack.
“I have been constantly receiving threats and avoid stepping out of my house in the evenings. My crime is that I resorted to aerial firing to keep the mob away from attacking my house where my neighbours were hiding,” he says.
Following the riots, Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti had also hinted at the SSP’s involvement in the riots.
Naveed is also nominated in an FIR filed by some of the Muslims from the area a week after the incident and was even arrested. They denied that Christians were attacked and instead claim that it was a fight between the two communities with blame on both sides.
Arthur Gill, another witness in the case, says that since many of their supporters have been implicated in the cross-version FIR, their case has become weak.
Case progressing well: police
DPO Toba Tek Singh, Rana Ahmad Hussain, says that there wasn’t enough evidence against those declared innocent. “There were hundreds of people in the mob. We can’t possibly charge all those who were just standing around at the time of the attack.”
Hussain also denies the involvement of any banned organisation in the attack. “The police have done their job. The case is now in the court and is proceeding well.”
Prakash added that a Lahore-based organisation, which had offered to provide the Christians legal assistance, later pressurised them to reconcile with the accused. “Almas Hameed withdrew his case and the committee allowed him to leave the country, but we have decided to contest the case on our own once Almas sends us the power of attorney, which he has promised to do.”
Reverend John Samuel, Bishop of the Diocese of Faisalabad, also expresses his disappointment with the indifferent attitude of the government towards the Christian community.
“New houses have been built in place of those that were burnt, but those responsible for the attack are not convicted. Compensation is not enough; justice should also be served,” he says.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 29th, 2010.