Pakistani Jail Slaying Fuels Fears of More Attacks on "Blasphemers"

Activist Islamic Prisoners Pose Threat

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ISTANBUL, Turkey, JUNE 13, 2002 ( A Pakistani Muslim convicted of blasphemy was shot dead by a fellow prisoner in Lahore´s Kot Lakhpat Central Jail, deepening fears about the safety of other religious inmates.

M. Yousaf Ali was reportedly being transferred from his death-row cell Tuesday when he was shot four times by a convicted murderer identified only as Tariq.

When the prison´s superintendent arrived at the scene, the killer exclaimed loudly, “It was your duty, but I have done it,” the Daily Times reported Wednesday.

A panic ensued at the jail that took officials four hours to quell, the Dawn newspaper reported.

The prison superintendent resigned a few hours after the crisis. Shortly afterward, Deputy Inspector General of Prisons Sarfaraz Mufti put the prison´s assistant superintendent, Bashir Chaudhry, and two prison wardens under arrest on charges of negligence.

Mufti said an official inquiry had been ordered into the murder. A prison insider told the Daily Times that the unscheduled transfer of prisoners had been ordered by Chaudhry.

“It was not a routine transfer,” a journalist who went to the Kot Lakhpat prison told the Compass Direct agency. “The fact that the murderer was standing there ready, brandishing his gun as he waited for the other prisoner to come, points toward complicity.”

Yousaf Ali, about 60 years of age, was waiting to appeal his conviction to the Lahore High Court. He was jailed more than four years ago on accusations that he had declared himself a prophet.

The attack deepened concerns of local human rights advocates that similar attempts might be made against the lives of at least 75 other Pakistani citizens known to be incarcerated on allegations of blasphemy in the nation´s prisons.

With an increased number of Islamist activists jailed in recent months in the government´s crackdown on international terrorism, blasphemy prisoners now find themselves sharing cells with the most violent category of prisoners.

“Since they are associated with religious organizations like al-Qaeda, they threaten and beat the [accused blasphemers] whenever they get the opportunity,” the Lahore-based Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) noted in a statement June 6.

Abid Hassan Minto, a lawyer defending two of the most prominent blasphemy prisoners on death row in Pakistan, told Compass that the families of his clients have already asked for increased security for their imprisoned relatives, in the wake of Tuesday´s murder.

Minto is representing Christian Ayub Masih in the first death sentence for blasphemy ever to be appealed before the Supreme Court of Pakistan. He is also defending Muslim professor Younis Sheikh before the Lahore High Court, appealing a death sentence handed down against him last October.

According to compiled lists from local human rights activists, Pakistani citizens jailed on blasphemy charges during the year 2001 alone included some 40 Muslims, 23 members of the Ahmadi sect, 10 Christians and two Hindus.

Amended 16 years ago under the dictatorial regime of Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan´s vaguely written, harsh laws against blasphemy now require execution for anyone convicted of slandering the prophet Mohammed, with long prison terms and fines for “lesser” offenses against Islam and the Koran.

Although no one has ever been executed, the accused spend years in prison while under trial and must flee the country after acquittal to avoid assassination.

Government leaders, including General Pervez Musharraf, have tried to introduce procedural changes in the laws, in order to prevent their abuse. But in the face of violent threats from Islamist political groups, Islamabad has backtracked every time, leaving the “black laws” intact.

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