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Blasphemy’ Suspect Flees Pakistan

by Peter Lamprecht and Nancy Von Schimmelmann

LAHORE , Pakistan , June 30 (Compass Direct) – A Pakistani “blasphemy” suspect has appealed for asylum in Holland after facing police torture and attacks by Muslim extremists for his controversial religious views.

Yasaar Hameed, 36, applied for asylum in late March, meeting Dutch immigration officials for his first hearing on June 7. Still wanted on charges of blasphemy in Pakistan , Hameed told friends in Pakistan that authorities said it would take at least six months to process his application.

Hameed’s wife and two children remain in Pakistan where they face dual insecurity for converting to Christianity and for Hameed being sought as a blasphemy suspect. Hameed and his family converted to Christianity in 2004.

A political activist and comparative religion scholar, Hameed has found himself in courtroom troubles several times since 1993, each time accused of blasphemy. The worst accusation came in December 2002, when extremist maulvis (Muslim teachers) accused him of publishing a pamphlet showing Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, in indecent positions.

Under Pakistani law, blasphemy against Muhammad carries the death penalty.

Hameed was detained for nearly six months from December 2002 to May 2003. The former prisoner said he was tortured for two weeks and denied food for a month, and that he also spent time in solitary confinement.

“After he didn’t come home for a week, we began to get worried,” Hameed’s wife, whose name has been withheld for security reasons, told Compass. “The police wanted a bribe before they would give us any information, and no lawyers were able to help us.”

Co-Defendant Murdered

Frustrated, Hameed’s wife and mother-in-law went to a local Catholic church to pray. The Muslim women felt that their prayers had been answered when they got a phone call the next day from a man who claimed to know Hameed’s location.

“It was through the tea server at the police station that my husband eventually got word to us that he was being held in the Koth Walee police station,” Hameed’s wife said.

Mushtaq Zafar – Hameed’s co-defendant in the 2002 blasphemy charge and a political colleague of his – was released on bail in February 2003. On his way home from the courthouse, Zafar was ambushed on the road and killed by “unknown assailants,” daily newspaper Dawn reported on February 7, 2003.

Two men were later charged with the murder, Hameed said, but were eventually released.

Upon Hameed’s 2003 release, he returned to the local Catholic church with his mother-in-law to give thanks for answered prayer.

Hameed asked the parish priest for his help. Though he had been cleared of blasphemy charges, the murder of Zafar indicated that his life was still in danger.

The priest referred him to another Christian, who gave Hameed and his family a place to hide for more than a year, arranged for his children’s education and spoke to him about Christ.

“We decided to research all major religions together and see which one was correct,” the Christian, whose name has been withheld for security reasons, told Compass.

Hameed had studied Christian literature, lectured on Christianity and met Christians, but he had associated mostly with the dissident Muslims of the organizations to which he belonged. But on November 28, 2004, the intellectual Muslim skeptic, his wife, son, daughter and two relatives were baptized.

Searching for Truth

Hameed’s curiosity about faith stemmed from the religious background of his family. His mother was an Islamic scholar, and other family members were clerics.

At age 11, he received free Christian literature from a book van. “For Muslims, it was said to be a sin to read non-Muslim books,” Hameed explained. “And that placed a fear in me that made me sick every time I read Christian literature.”

After graduating with a degree in law from the University of Punjab in Lahore , Hameed opened his own practice and started the Religious Research Institute in Pakistan .

Considered a dissident group, though still Islamic, the institute attracted questioning and rebellious young Muslims. Hameed wrote books challenging Islam’s validity, including Islam: The Enemy of Humanity, and taught comparative studies on Islam and Christianity.

“We were looking for the truth,” Hameed recalled. “So we decided to research religions and to accept the true religion.”

The group also got involved in local politics, winning local union council elections against Islamic conservatives in Baghbanpura, Lahore .

But as their profile increased, so did the opposition against them.

In addition to the legal accusations of blasphemy, “there were processions against us,” Hameed recounts. “First they were only in Lahore , and then it spread to the whole of Pakistan . Muslims threw petrol bombs on our houses and killed many of us. I was shot six times.”

Extremists murdered his younger brother – who had become a Christian – in March 1998.

Two more people died in 2001 in a fire caused when members of a rival political party stormed the office of Malik Sajid, a member of Hameed’s group. According to Hameed, the attackers threw a hand grenade into the crowded office, igniting the fire and injuring 12 people.

Two men arrested for the attack justified their actions by claiming that Sajid’s group had committed blasphemy, Pakistani daily Dawn reported on November 20, 2001.

Tables Turned

Despite going into hiding after his six-month detention on blasphemy charges in 2003, Hameed continued to fight back against the clerics who had accused him.

In October 2003, Hameed opened two cases against the Muslim clerics whom he believed had been behind the attacks against him and his colleagues. He charged members of Jamiat Islami, as well as outlawed extremist groups Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Tayyabba, with having carried out “deliberate or malicious acts” intended to insult “religious beliefs.”

At least 20 clerics were briefly detained, Hameed told Compass, but none were arrested.

On December 20, 2004, one of Hameed’s chief opponents, Dr. Imtiaz Ghazi, was murdered in his clinic. Ghazi’s brother accused Hameed and three others of the crime – and of blasphemy.

In an article the following day, the Daily Pakistan newspaper claimed that Hameed and an unknown accomplice had killed Ghazi. Hameed went into hiding, but a police raid on a friend’s home in October 2005 convinced him that it would be safer for everyone if he left the country.

Since his departure to Europe , Hameed’s family has been forced into hiding, concealing their identity. In May, Hameed’s sister-in-law and mother-in-law were at an outdoor market when police involved in his case noticed them.

“We heard one policeman telling his colleagues, ‘Look, there’s Yasaar Hameed’s sister-in-law – if we catch her we’ll make her tell us where he is,’” Hameed’s sister-in-law told Compass. “The policeman recognized me from when I had arranged to have a bailiff release Yasaar from police detention.”

The two women said that they escaped the policemen in the busy market streets and then hid in a church.

Hameed’s son is attending a Christian boarding school where only a few administrators know that he is a convert from Islam. At the last school he attended, Muslim students discovered that he had converted to Christianity and began to harass him constantly, calling him “infidel.”

Now living in Holland , Hameed hopes that his wife, 14-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter can soon join him. The Pakistani is living in the Dutch city of Arnhem near the German border.

Last week he underwent surgery to remove a bullet that was lodged in his shoulder from an extremist attack.

“It happened five or six years ago,” Hameed said in a telephone interview from Holland . The asylum seeker has been shot so many times, he said, that he cannot remember which incident left him with the imbedded bullet.

Controversy over immigration and asylum issues has dominated Dutch politics in recent years.

The Netherlands ’ ruling coalition government resigned today after its smallest member party, D66, quit the cabinet. D66 members were angered by Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk’s handling of a probe into Dutch Member of Parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s asylum application.

Verdonk had decided to strip Hirsi Ali of her passport after discovering that the Somali-born MP had lied about her name on her asylum application.

Even if Verdonk does not return to her post after new elections are held, her strict policies could affect Hameed’s asylum application.

Blasphemers Beware

Yasaar Hameed’s blasphemy trials highlight the ongoing misuse of Pakistan ’s blasphemy laws. Critics of the laws claim that they are poorly worded and, as in Hameed’s case, open to abuse by persons pursuing ulterior political and personal goals.

While the majority of blasphemy cases are registered against Muslims, human rights organizations have shown that the law is disproportionately used against religious minorities.

Two of Pakistan ’s blasphemy laws specifically target Pakistan ’s tiny Ahmadi community. Sections 298-B and 298-C of the Pakistan Penal Code forbid the group, which claims to be a Muslim sect, from practicing their faith and referring to themselves as Muslims.

Though the Ahmadi community constitutes less than 1 percent of Pakistan ’s population, the group suffers the most extreme institutionalized discrimination of any religious minority in Pakistan . Since 1984, Ahmadi beliefs have legally been classified as heresy for their controversial stance on Muhammad’s status as Islam’s final prophet.

Hameed used less known section 295-A to charge his extremist opponents with “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Violators of this blasphemy-related “religion law,” can be fined and sentenced with up to 10 years in prison.

Other sections of the blasphemy laws outlaw “injuring or defiling [a] place of worship, with [the] intent to insult the religion of any class,” and “disrespect for holy personages.”

Most notorious among Pakistan ’s blasphemy laws are sections 295-B and 295-C. These articles prescribe life imprisonment and the death penalty respectively for desecrating the Quran and blaspheming against Muhammad.

No blasphemy convict has been executed since the law was established in 1986, but extra-judicial killings of blasphemy prisoners are common.

At least 23 people involved in blasphemy cases have been murdered in Pakistan , according to the National Commission for Justice and Peace. A quarter of the victims were Christians, although Christians constitute less than 2 percent of the country’s population.