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Home Media Reports 2002 A Deadly Place …
A Deadly Place for Blasphemy

Los Angeles Times
Monday, August 5, 2002 - Home Edition

A Deadly Place for Blasphemy;
In Pakistan, those accused of sacrilege against Islam face life in prison or execution, if mobs or inmates don't kill them first.


Swirling in the mists of Anwar Kenneth's mind is a messianic vision of his reign over a world where Christians are saved and Muslims burn in hell.

The former provincial fisheries official believes he is the son of Christ and will ascend the throne as king of Israel. Then, he prophesies, the Islamic holy city of Mecca will be destroyed by fire.

But first Kenneth must die and come back to life. So he and the family members who believe in his divinity were encouraged when a Pakistani judge ruled recently that he was a blasphemer and must hang by the neck until dead. Kenneth's pronouncements are grave violations of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which give a judge only two options when punishing someone “who defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad”: life in prison or death at the gallows.

Saadia Khalid, Kenneth's court-appointed lawyer, insists that her client's preachings are not the hateful sacrilege of an infidel but the demented ravings of a sick man.

“He is completely a psycho case,” said Khalid, a Muslim and a member of Punjab province's human rights commission. “He is a man of cool temperament and very confident. He told me: ‘I don't need a lawyer. God is my counsel. He will protect me.’ ”

In many other countries, Kenneth would be tolerated as an annoying but harmless eccentric. In Pakistan, a country carved out of India in 1947 to give Muslims a South Asian homeland, he is considered a dangerous enemy who deserves no mercy.

Colonial laws inherited from British rule over the subcontinent prohibited blasphemy against any of Pakistan's various faiths. In 1986, Pakistani dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq rewrote the laws to apply to Islam alone. Human rights activists say Zia in effect invited extremists to threaten Pakistan's 15 million Christians—who make up roughly 10% of the population—and other religious minorities, many of them members of Muslim sects.

Two Ahmadis charged with blasphemy in March 1996, women in their 60s, were stabbed by their accuser, a tailor in the port city of Karachi. The victims went from the hospital to prison. The attacker, who said he had received orders from God in a dream, was never charged.

Filing a blasphemy charge in Pakistan is so easy that the laws are often used to pursue private vendettas and settle disputes over land or money. Those accused are often killed by village mobs, or by fellow prisoners in jail, before their cases can be heard. Perhaps most worrisome, the activists say, is the prosecution of mentally disturbed people such as Anwar Kenneth.

President Pervez Musharraf has vowed to curb religious extremism, but critics say that will remain a hollow promise as long as he leaves the blasphemy laws on the books.

“He doesn't want to take on any more hassles simply because a few people are suffering from extremists,” said Asma Jehangir, one of Pakistan's most respected human rights lawyers. “He is allowed to select what he wants to do as long as he keeps showing some kind of liberal face to the West. There is an extremely dangerous game being played.”

Soon after Musharraf seized control of the government in a 1999 coup, he suggested changing the laws to make it more difficult to charge someone with blasphemy. Before an arrest could be made, a deputy police commissioner would have to verify that a crime had been committed. Musharraf backed off the proposal after Muslim leaders threatened strikes and unrest.

The president's spokesman, Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, said the threat of violence was not a factor in Musharraf's change of heart. The safety of those accused of blasphemy was the president's prime concern, he said.

“Tempers in such cases run so high that before a person is taken into custody, a crowd may lynch him,” Qureshi said. “So therefore, it is better for a person to be taken into custody immediately.”

The problem, Jehangir and other activists say, is that police and jail guards often turn a blind eye while extremists take justice into their own hands.

In June, a fellow prisoner shot and killed convicted blasphemer Mohammed Yusuf Ali in Lahore's Kot Lakhpat jail.

Ali was a Muslim reformer who founded the World Assembly for Human Excellence. His stated mission was to work at the “grass roots to develop a culture of peace, tolerance and respect for each other by promoting values of human dignity and human excellence.”

“Today, [the] Islam portrayed in Muslim countries by religious clergy is a highly distorted version of real Islam, a way of living with love and peace, and serving the creator and creation,” Ali is quoted in a profile circulated by his followers.

Police charged Ali with blasphemy in March 1997. He stood accused of writing sacrilegious newspaper columns and claiming to resemble the Prophet Muhammad.

Dozens of Islamic scholars, including a Harvard University professor, testified or wrote letters in Ali's defense. He was convicted, and officially declared an infidel, in August 2000.

Police identified his suspected killer as an inmate who was charged with three previous murders. They couldn't explain how he got his hands on a gun and managed to shoot Ali as he was being transferred to another cellblock.

Broad Support for Laws

Support for the blasphemy laws runs broad and deep in Pakistani society. Grand imam Maulana Ahmad Ali Kasuri, founder of the True Muslim Family Values Ministry, said executing blasphemers is the only way to protect Pakistani society from an illness that seeks to destroy it.

Muslims view the Koran as God's final, definitive revelation and Muhammad as the last of the prophets. So any proclamation of a divine vision such as the one Kenneth made violates a fundamental tenet of Islam, which holds that there can be no further revelations.

From 1987 to 2001, police charged at least 300 Pakistanis with differing degrees of blasphemy, according to a study of police and court records by the nongovernmental Pakistan Human Rights Commission and a legal aid agency.

The offenses ranged from speaking ill of holy figures, such as one of Muhammad's wives—punishable by three years in prison or a fine—to the most serious: defiling the name of the prophet himself.

Most of those charged with blasphemy are convicted. The death sentence is imposed in fewer than half the cases and is usually upheld on appeal, Jehangir said. Nevertheless, the government says, no one has ever been executed for blasphemy.

Muslim Sect Targeted

Those charged under the laws include members of the Ahmadiyya sect, who believe that Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a 19th century Muslim reformer, was the promised messiah. Orthodox Muslims consider Ahmadis heretics, and the Pakistani Constitution forbids them to call themselves Muslims.

Two Ahmadis charged with blasphemy in March 1996, women in their 60s, were stabbed by their accuser, a tailor in the port city of Karachi. The victims went from the hospital to prison. The attacker, who said he had received orders from God in a dream, was never charged.

Those able to buy their way out of prison go into exile. Prison justice has taken care of others.

Tahir Iqbal, an air force mechanic, was charged with blasphemy in December 1990 after converting from Islam to Christianity. In Islam, apostasy—the abandonment of the faith—is a particularly grave offense, punishable by death.

Iqbal, paralyzed from the waist down, was denied bail. The night before his trial began in July 1992, he died in his jail cell. His lawyer, human rights advocate Naem Shakir, said Iqbal had been poisoned.

Ayub Masih, a Christian, was arrested in October 1996 after a villager claimed to have overheard him say, “If [you] want to know the truth about Islam, then read Salman Rushdie.”

Rushdie's novel “The Satanic Verses”, published in 1988, enraged many Muslims with its whimsical, sometimes outrageous retelling of Muhammad's life. For years, Rushdie lived under a death sentence imposed by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who denounced the novel as a work of blasphemy. In 1998, Khomeini's successors in effect rescinded the edict.

Masih was not so fortunate. One of his accusers, Mohammed Akram, shot him during the trial in the Punjab town of Sahiwal. Akram was never charged. Masih survived, only to be found guilty and sentenced to death in April 1998. He remains in prison, waiting for the country's Supreme Court to hear his appeal.

Nine days after Masih's conviction, Roman Catholic Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad led a protest march to the courthouse. Once inside the building, the bishop put a gun to his head and committed suicide, according to police. Some of the bishop's followers believe he was murdered.

Blasphemy allegations are commonly used to settle scores, such as village disputes over land, or to cover up crimes such as sexual abuse or land theft, said Jehangir, the human rights lawyer. Judges are loath to throw out even weak blasphemy cases because they fear retaliation from radical Islamists, she said.

At least two mentally disabled women were physically and sexually assaulted by village mobs who accused them of blasphemy in recent years, Jehangir said. One was raped and set on fire in Punjab's Rahim Yar Khan district in 1999, the study of police and court records found.

Last month, a mob dragged a mentally ill man from his home, beat him unconscious with iron rods and sticks, then stoned him to death, allegedly on the instructions of a local Muslim cleric.

The victim, Zahid Shah, had been convicted of blasphemy in 1994 for claiming to be a prophet. An appeals court ordered his release three years later after concluding that he was mentally ill.

Anwar Kenneth's troubles began after he quit his government job and began preaching that Muhammad was a false prophet and that Jesus Christ was the only savior. Kenneth, who lived across the street from a police station, taunted officers, challenging them to arrest him.

In an Aug. 27 letter, he informed a local Muslim leader that he and all other followers of Islam were damned. Kenneth then invited Muslims to charge him with blasphemy and execute him.

That would speed his rise to “the throne of the Lord in Jerusalem,” where, Kenneth wrote, he would rule for 1,260 days until “the beast ascends from the bottomless pit” and kills him again.

Though Kenneth refused to let anyone defend him, Khalid, his court-appointed lawyer, met with him four times in jail. Each time, she said, she left more certain that he was sick.

She asked the judge to order a psychiatric examination before his trial began. Kenneth's state of mind was irrelevant, the judge ruled, because he had confessed to declaring Muhammad a false prophet and had bragged about the crime. He found Kenneth guilty July 18 and sent him straight to Kot Lakhpat jail, where his defenders fear he could be harmed.

Bush Seen as Antichrist

While in prison awaiting trial, Kenneth scribbled calculations with formulas he said he had derived from the books of Daniel, Isaiah and Revelation. In the numbers, he saw the truth: He wrote that the antichrist, marked by the sign of 666, is none other than George Walker Bush.

“He will try to change the world order and belief,” Kenneth wrote in his prison cell May 27. “He will force people to surrender, and those who will not will be destroyed. When George Walker Bush completes 42 months of his rule, he will be killed and the world be ruled by the pious people.”

Kenneth sent 188 copies of the neatly typed four-page letter to foreign leaders, Muslim and Christian clerics, foreign diplomats in Pakistan and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Just as Jesus Christ was resurrected three days after his crucifixion, Kenneth said, he would rise from the dead. Then the holiest sites of Islam, Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, “will be destroyed with fire and brimstone by the Lord Jesus Christ and its land shall become burning pitch,” he wrote.

“God bless you all,” the letter ended. “Amen.”

© 2002 Los Angeles Times
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