BARKAT-- A Victim of the Blasphemy Laws of Pakistan:Dr. Stephen Gill

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One of the victims of the blasphemy laws is Barkat who was "arrested and imprisoned for 15 months on fabricated charges of insulting the prophet Mohammed. Barket was acquitted with honour by a Karachi court in January 1993. Under the controversial bl

The leading rift started when some Muslim businessmen returned from their holy pilgrimage to Mecca, called Hajj. Barkat was the only Christian businessman in that area. His business became a point of disagreement between him and the other Muslim traders.

Before fabricating a case, some of them tried to force Barkat to leave that area and move to somewhere else. When Barkat refused, they told him that they would teach him a lesson. On Tuesday, October 8, 1991, at nine o'clock in the morning, five or six young Muslim boys shouted at him to go to see them at their shop that was about ten feet away from there. He told them to wait because he was organizing his stuff at the store. They shouted again, this time more furiously, telling him to go to them first. As he did, they told Barkat that he had dishonoured the mother of Prophet Mohammed by calling her bad names.

Barkat said that was a lie. Yet, they insisted that he had called her names. Frightened, Barkat did not want to prolong the matter. He asked for forgiveness if he had said anything unintentionally.

They did not accept his apology, raising their voices even more angrily. He left those boys. Within an hour, they circulated the misinformation against Barkat and in this way they were able to gather a crowd. Growing afraid of a riot, the organizers of the bazaar informed the police. Meanwhile, a crowd approached Barkat carrying knives, sticks, stones and other weapons. As the crowd was about to attack him, the police came and took him into their protection. The police, who had guns, told the crowd that they would shoot if anyone tried to move.

The police ordered Barkat to go with them. When he asked the reason, the officers told him that he would be informed at the police station. When he told the officers that he was innocent, one officer ordered him to be quiet and just sit in their car. As he was taken to the police station, the mob shouted that it was their problem and they would settle with him and therefore he should not be taken to the station.

At the police station he was told he had committed a crime under the blasphemy laws. They would put him behind the bars. There he saw inspector Rahim Dutt Khan, a guy with a round protruding stomach. After hearing the story from the officers, he looked at Barkat with his eyes wide open. Twisting his long black mustache, he shouted like a hungry lion: "if I had the power, I would have finished you right now." While Barkat was trying to recognize his worst fears in the inspector's venomous language and tone, six cars full of people from the same bazaar arrived to tell the police officers that if they released the victim, they would raze their building to the ground. Barkat was locked up.

After a while, an inspector took Barkat's address and wrote the First Information Report, called the FIR in Pakistan, against him and then locked him up again. It was about eleven o'clock in the morning. The whole day, he remained in the cell worried, tired, nervous, and without food while the officers passing that way glanced at him as if he were an animal in a zoo. In their look, he noticed anger.

His brother, mother, nephew and some of his friends came to see him at nine or ten at night. All were Christians. His mother asked the police officers to let her look at her son to see his condition. She was worried that her son might have been wounded. The police officers did not allow her to see him. His brother requested them at least to give them permission to give some food to Barkat. A police officer said he did not have proof that they were his relatives. After a little more talk, an officer asked the visitors to eat the food first to prove there was no poison. They were finally allowed to see Barkat on the second floor where he was under lock and key. His mother wept sitting on the floor.

In the morning, the police took Barkat to court. They were ordered by the court to transfer him to a jail on the following day. Back at the police station, he was confined to a cell that was set up for torture. It was secluded away from the main police station. Four policemen started beating him. The food that was given to him late night, while he was moaning with mental and physical pain, was horrible. There were no bed and bed sheet and the floor was unpaved. Life in jail where he was moved the next day was slightly better, but the ghosts of fear were always there to torment him. When the case started, the judge began receiving threats that Barkat should not be acquitted because he had dishonoured the prophet.

The case was transferred to a woman judge. She took the case calmly. On the 18th of January 1993, the lawyers argued the case. Barkat's lawyer, Mohammed Slough -Ud-Din Gandapuri, argued that the shopkeeper next to Mr. Barkat was Mohammed Tariq who was asked if he heard Barkat saying anything against the mother of the Prophet. He testified that he never heard this. The main witness against Mr. Barkat was Mohammed Arif, the accuser. His shop was at a distance of ten to fifteen feet. When the arguments of the lawyers ended, the judge said that the shop of Mr. Barkat and the shop of the main witness, the accuser, were at some distance. Next door shopkeeper did not hear those words of dishonour. How a shopkeeper of so far distance could hear those words against the mother of the prophet? Barkat was present during that discussion among the lawyers.

The judge whose name was Khalida Yassen told the accuser that she was a woman. If she had heard those words, she would have killed Barkat right at that moment although being a woman she was supposed to be kind and nonviolent. If Barkat had said something against the mother of the prophet, where the sentiments of those accusers were. Why those accusers could not kill him right at that time when he uttered those filthy words. She said that she would give her final judgment on the 24th of January at 12 in the afternoon.

Instead, Barkat was called by the court at eight o'clock next morning. The judge said, " You are free now." Barkat did not trust his ears because it happened suddenly and unexpectedly. He remained standing. She repeated, "Go, go, I have set you free."

Barkat thanked the judge and came out where his spouse, children, brother and mother were waiting for him. He embraced them one by one. In about seven minutes, the typist of the judge rushed out to tell Barkat that he would be sent to the jail again and at once because shortly the extremists were expected to gather around that area to kill him. She also told Barkat that for his protection, he would be the last one to be freed secretly from the jail.

Barkat was released from the Karachi Central Jail around ten hours after the court decision was announced by Judge Khalida Yassen. When he was out of jail at about nine o'clock at night, he sighted a car, ready to pick him up. He was taken to a place where his family had arranged a party to celebrate his freedom.
He was imprisoned for fifteen months without bail. Had he been convicted, he would have been condemned to a mandatory execution under the Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code. The defense concluded that the case was registered due to the business rivalry. The judge noted that the persecution had badly failed to produce even a single witness to prove the alleged blasphemy2.

Despite his complete legal exoneration, militants kept coming to his house to find him. They used to tell the members of his family that they wanted to congratulate Barkat on his release from jail. They used to be armed. Barkat kept receiving death threats from Muslim zealots through his mail also.

Some Christian ministers arranged a student's visa for him to study abroad. A student visa was an easy and a fast way to send him out of the country. In Sri Lanka, he met the UNHCR commissioner Mr. Godfry who arranged his refugee status in Canada.

After two years and two months, on the 1st of December 1996, with the help of some Sri Lankan priests and a Canadian church, his asylum was arranged in Canada. Priests and several others from Sri Lanka and Canada helped him for which he is obliged to them.

I knew the story of Barkat from the media. I contacted him through someone within weeks of his arrival in Canada. There were a few questions that were bothering me. Here was a person who could answer them because he was involved in a blasphemy case. Also I wanted to know if he really had dishonoured the Muslim religion. I was curious to see the person who had the courage to speak against the prophet of Muslims who were ninety-five percent of the population in Pakistan. Besides their numerical strength, they had blasphemy laws in their favour that was the sword of Damocles over the head of a minority of 3%. The person who dared to challenge that majority must be either insane or packed with the venom of hatred.

At first sight, Barkat appeared boyish. He was slim and of medium height. Within a few minutes of our conversation I began to realize that Barkat was articulate, honest and intelligent. We spoke in Panjabi. When I introduced him to a non-Pakistani at my house, he shifted easily to English. I wondered at his fluency. Later I discovered that he did not know even a word of English two years before when he left Pakistan.

Barkat shared several incidents of his life with me that afternoon. It was an experience to know him and to know how the blasphemy laws were shredding minorities to pieces.

While in jail, he constantly received letters from the members of the international human rights commission from all over the world. Those letters provided him with a ray of hope when there seemed to be none. He realized that those letters from abroad made a difference. The authorities were comparatively lenient because of the awareness of his case abroad.

One day, one prison inspector told others that Barkat was a Christian and because he had said something against the prophet he should be given all the possible dirty work to do. Barkat retorted that they could do whatever they wanted with him-- they could torture him to any extent-- but he would not do the filthy work. A jailer interrupted to tell them not to be hard on Barkat, because he was a spy of some foreign nations. His reports against the jail authorities would be in the news and that would lead them into trouble.

That afternoon while enjoying a cup of tea at my house, Barkat told me about his miraculous escape from an army deserter. This officer, Mohammed Farook, was jailed because of his crime for deserting the army.

One day, this army fugitive asked Barkat the reason for his being in jail. Barkat told him briefly that he was in a business and ended up in jail because of the business jealousy. A few days after that, the army deserter, Mohammed Farook, was given a light work at the main entrance of the jail. That was the day of Barkat's hearing in court. When Barkat returned in the evening, he saw Mohammed Farook collecting the warrants or letters from prisoners who had also court hearing. After reading the court papers, he was informing the prisoners of their dates for the next hearing and the nature of their crimes. Mohammed Farook saw the papers of Barkat and thought for a while. He came back to the barracks after a while, and called Barkat to ask his crime. The military deserter appeared to be shaken.

Barkat stated he had already told him that due to business jealousy, a crime was fabricated against him. The army soldier was not satisfied with that explanation. He was furious. He told Barkat that he did not tell the truth but he had found out that truth when Barkat handed him the court papers. He asked another officer what 295 code meant. Since that time Mohammed Farook said that his heart was burning. The army deserter suggested that there was one solution. Barkat should go with him to Darul Quran Mosque that was within the prison. In that mosque Barkat should accept Islam. That was the only way to save himself from his fury.

Barkat told him that he was proud of being a Christian. The man became more furious and told Barkat that he would see him in the morning to set him right.

That night was not easy for Barkat. He was nervous, because that tall and muscular army deserter was an extremist. Barkat knew that extremists believed it was a good deed in the eyes of God either to convert a non-Muslim by any means or to kill. Barkat had heard ugly episodes of torture of one prisoner by others within the walls of the jail. In his case, no other prisoner or authority was going to save him from the wrath of a fanatic. There were Muslims around him and he was accused of something that was enough to land him in the valley of death in or outside the jail.

That night turned out however meaningful. When the thoughts of the impending danger were crucifying him, about one o' clock in the morning, he started reading his Bible in Urdu. While praying, he dozed. He dreamt that he would be saved. After that he enjoyed a peaceful sleep. When he got up in the morning, he learnt that there was an order from the jail superintendent for all the military criminals to be transferred immediately to Sukher Jail. Mohammed Farook was on that list. He told Barkat before leaving, "You are lucky. I had terrible plans for you." "Any other incident from your life in jail?" I asked looking into his eyes.

"Several. The whole jail unrolls before my eyes even now. The jail was divided into several barracks. Each barracks, meant for 175 prisoners, was packed with around 275. "An employee of the barracks, short and skinny, would come at six in the morning carrying a stick which you see with the animal trainers in the circus. The employee used to hit the ground three times with his stick to make a noise. With that noise all the inmates were supposed to be up. If one could not, he was beaten with that stick.

"For the breakfast, we were given a glass of tea and a loaf of Indian bread. Then we were put to work the whole day. We stopped for our lunch at noon for two loaves. After that again work.
"In the hall where we slept, the inmates were not allowed even to sit. We were not given pillows and sheets. No one was allowed to talk to anyone.

"Christian prisoners were given dirty work to do, like cleaning toilets and other sanitary duties. Their glasses, cups and plates were kept separate from the utensils of the others. The Muslim inmates were openly told not to eat with Christians."

"Were you optimistic that you would be acquitted?" I asked "This reminds me of an incident. One day when my parents and wife came to visit me, they began crying. It was not a normal sight. They used to chat and encourage me, but that visit was different. There were only tears and tears. They were sobbing, crying without saying anything. While leaving, they told me about the new law. According to this law there was only the death sentence for the blasphemy victims."
"How did you take that news?"

"Mentally, I was not very upset as my parents were. It is because of the letters I used to receive from all over the world. People of those letters said that they were praying for me. Those letters were a great consolation for me.

"Before going to my bed that night, I opened my Bible and read the epistle of the Romans from chapter ten which gave me consolation."

Barkat feels that it is beyond his understanding how and why God has saved him from the clutches of fanatics and smoothed his ways to come to Canada. He is convinced that there must be some purpose behind it. While talking to me, Barkat often quoted Mark 13 :13 where it is written: And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake: but he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved."

I interrupted, "What a...?"

Barkat continued, "People in Pakistan are being convicted of the blasphemy for words never uttered and for the witnesses never given." He added, "You know Salamet Masih's case. He was convicted of writing something against the prophet on the walls of a mosque. No one ever saw those words and no one ever repeated those words in court. Moreover, Salamat Masih was twelve years old and illiterate. Yet, he was condemned to death. There are several more Christians who were in worst situations than Salamat Masih was. No one will ever come to know them because they were never able to reach a human rights activist or a church or even police." Barkat became silent.

"How did you find a lawyer"? I was eager to know.

"According to the blasphemy laws, a lawyer has to be a Muslim and the judge should also be a Muslim. My friends and relatives contacted different lawyers. Most of them refused to take my case because of its nature. One Muslim lawyer said that the victim spoke against the prophet and therefore if I had the power I will shoot him. Several lawyers were afraid of extremists and therefore did not want to take a chance. If there was any, the fee was extremely so high that we were not able to pay. One lawyer took his fee and disappeared.

"In blasphemy cases, there is no bail now. The victim is either set free or condemned to death. Salamat Masih and the other two with him were set free on bail by the higher court; one of them was killed soon after the release.

"One Christian lawyer, Cornelius, came forward to help us in some way. He said that he would meet the judge and try to set me free on bail. Cornelius tried, but the judge told him that there is no bail for this case. Cornelius was helpful and his fee was not high.

"Slough Din Gandapuri was the last one to be asked through a human rights association, called the institute of Aman and Inasaf, which in English means peace and justice. Gandapuri is the one who was helpful till the last."

"Why did you not contact the lawyer of Salamat Masih. Her name is Asma Jangir?"
"She is from Lahore which is very far from Karachi. Moreover, she is very busy. She was also on our list to approach eventually.

"Another problem was with my witnesses. I hope you know that in Pakistan one adult's witness is half witness if that adult is a non-Muslim.

"All the four Muslim witnesses told the judge that they could be jailed and handcuffed, but they would not say a word against Barkat. They said they knew Barkat and his family personally. They never heard him saying anything against the Prophet. Mr. Barkat is an honourable person."
When the witnesses spoke in Barkat's favour, the Judge acquitted him.

From the day of his acquittal, the family of Barkat started receiving threats saying their child would not be saved. The fanatics said they did not care for the judgment. He spoke against the Prophet and therefore he had to be killed.

"What happened after your acquittal", I interrupted finding him lost in thought. He heaved a deep sigh and continued:

"I still feel those days. It is not that easy to open that chapter from the book of my life. I was released from prison on the 24th of January 1993. The following day, four bearded men dressed in Pakistani dress of shalwar and kameez knocked at the door at about ten in the morning. My mother opened the door. They asked about me. My mother told them that Barkat lived there but was not at home. They left saying they would return in the afternoon.

"They came again in the evening. My mother told them that Barkat was not at home. It is true that for safety, I was away most of the time. Three days after that they came again. This time, there were six. For about two weeks they continued coming every second or third day. When they got news that I had gone to the Panjab, they were really mad. They shouted that they would find me. The court has released him, but he cannot hide from them because he has dishonoured our Prophet and his mother. He will pay for that."

Lost in thought, Barkat began to look outside into the snow flurries. All of a sudden, as if awakened from a dream, he spoke:

"Almost a month after my release, I started getting anonymous letters that I would be killed at any time because according to them I had committed an unpardonable crime.

"My family and I used to take refuge in the homes of different relatives and friends. My priest friend, Fr. Arnold Heredia, who had stood beside me during my detention and helped me with a lawyer through the human rights organization he is associated with, also told me that I could stay with him. Since moving to his residence was difficult, I did not stay with him. Besides, I feared that somebody might see me there and this could harm Fr. Arnold and his institution. "On April 9, 1993, on Good Friday, I was taking my son to a doctor in my locality. My son had been running a high temperature for several days. Making a turn into a small street towards the doctor's clinic, Abdul Hafeez, who is a Sipah Sahaba (an Islamic militant group) activist and a friend of my complainant, Mohammed Arif, recognized me. He drew the attention of the two men who were accompanying him.

Pointing towards me, he told them `This is Barkat. Recognize him' I returned home immediately without taking my son to the doctor.

"A friend of mine by the name Nadeem who is Christian told me about Arif, the Muslim who had fabricated the whole lie against me. Nadeem told me after my release from jail that Arif had a plan to move to Panjab with his family. If I was released, Arif would come back to Karachi from Panjab to kill my family and me. This way nobody would suspect that Arif was the killer, because everybody knew that Arif was in Panjab and not in Karachi where I lived.

"Mohammed Arif did shift to Panjab in April. Towards the end of September, I heard, he had returned to Karachi leaving his family behind. He started living in my locality.

"Every now and then I was told stories about threats on my life. For the safety of my family and myself, I had to withdraw my children from school. I continued to live amidst constant fear.
"The incidents that I have mentioned are only a few among the many I have encountered. I lived with fear everyday thinking that could be the last day of my life. The plan of Arif that I came to know from my Christian friend Nadeem was the one that had upset me the most. Having the support of the fundamentalist Sipaha Sahaba, Arif could eliminate me at any moment. Already there had been incidents when the accused Christians were murdered. The blasphemy accusations cannot be revoked. Everyone is aware that the religious head of Iran has vowed that the death sentence of Salman Rushdi cannot be revoked. It had become impossible for me to earn a living. "In 1994, May 18, five fundamentalists, fully armed, came to my house in Karachi. Fortunately I was not at home. They spoke to my father rudely and threatened that somehow or other they would kill me. To give vent to their frustration, they fired in the air.

Barkat was terribly upset. He used to leave his house only in the dark if he had to. His activities were restricted. He changed places of his residence often and looked at every visitor as a possible killer. Freedom was not freedom in the real sense. In a way, it was worse than jail. During this time a Christian group of human rights arranged a visa for him to go abroad.
He said,

"In 1995, August, I went to Rawalpinidi with some Christians. They protected me. After staying there for a few weeks, I returned to Karachi. I met Fr. Arnold Heredia who told me to get my travel documents ready to move out of Pakistan. Fr. Arnold protected me after the assassination of Manzoor Masih and mentioned that my life was also in danger and that he was trying to obtain an emergency visa that would enable me to leave Pakistan. I was very frightened and mentally disturbed, thinking that I would die soon. There were moments when I used to get tired of that sort of life. I did not know what to do.These were the thoughts of my children and the prayers of my well wishers from all over the world which gave me hope.

"Fr. Arnold gave me my passport with an emergency visa, a ticket, about two hundred dollars and sent me abroad with some businessmen and instructed them to help me with the immigration procedures.

"I don't think those were the shopkeepers who were looking for you to kill. Maybe those shopkeepers had hired hooligans to kill you. It appears unlikely that they will come with guns," I asked.

"I do not know all this. I am telling the facts," Barkat said.
"Did you approach the police for protection?".

"That was to invite death. The police will not listen to Christians. They are Muslims. It was dangerous to tell the police about my whereabouts. Police could have killed me under the pretext of my protection. For safety, we did not tell the police."

When I asked about the politicians, he said "Benazir was good for Christians. She wanted to get rid of the blasphemy laws, but fundamentalists turned against her. Pakistan has earned a bad name all over the world for the sake of a few fundamentalists. Otherwise, the country is good." "What were those trumped up words that the witness said you had used against the mother of the prophet?"

" The witnesses did not tell the words. The witness was told by his lawyer that he should not say anything." "Why ?"
"My lawyer said that when the witness says anything against the prophet or his family, I would get him arrested saying that he used those words against the prophet in court. The whole court would be the witness.

Sitting in the living room of my house, Barkat's told me that his local priest in Canada has advised him not to be associated with the media and he should forget his past to lead a peaceful life. That is what I told him. And that is what he has planned. He told me later that he does not feel free in a real sense. He does not tell his address in Pakistan particularly to Muslims. He has hidden his real name. He was advised to take extra precautions.

Barkat has developed an extraordinary love for Canada because the country has given him and his family a new life. He has adjusted here within a short time. I told him that nobody dies of hunger in Canada. There could be several terrorists who have sought refuge here. Somehow, they forget their past and start building their future for themselves as well as for their children. The best thing is not to stand in their way.

That evening I found out that Barkat was also a good cook. In the evening, he offered to make chapaties and also chicken curry. Barkat has learnt French and has improved his English considerably. His children have become perfectly trilingual in a short time. His local priest often visits them and helps the children with their school work. He plays a Pakistani instrument in the choir of his church. He is in touch with the local community of India and Pakistan as well.

Barkat has not severed his ties with the country of his birth, where his friends and relatives are still living. Whenever, he hears another victim of the blasphemy laws, he feels sorry. He says he was one of the lucky ones who was supported by the human rights activists and the church. There are several victims who have never come to light because they were far from the main cities. Moreover because they were killed even before authorities started intervening.
He heard about the arrest of Fr. Arnold Heredia, a person who had helped Barkat to find a lawyer and in so many other ways. Fr. Heredia was one of the seventeen persons who were arrested for expressing their views against the blasphemy laws in a public rally.

Barkat told me how sorry he was to know that two Christian boys were arrested in Jacobabad for distributing Christian literature among Christians and were beaten by the police for that reason.The mob was after the pastor of that region. Why do they crush the human rights of others, he often wonders? He told me that the meaning of his name Barkat is blessing in the Urdu language. He is really blessed because he is alive in a land of peace. A considerable number of Christians in Pakistan did not have the courage of Barkat. They embraced Islam under threat to save their lives. Barkat's younger brother, Jacob, was one of them. Jacob knew that his brother could be condemned to death or killed by one of the prisoners, as it had happened to several Christians before. Even his acquittal by a court would not mean anything. Jacob became Muslim to save his life. When Barkat was arrested on the blasphemy charges, his brother started pretending to have an interest in the Muslim religion to please the majority and avoid their wrath on him and his family. Some Muslims began to take him to a mosque. When Barkat was out of the country, his brother stopped going to the mosque. Instead, he continued going to his church. Fundamentalists blamed him for dishonouring the prophet. They went after his life for going back to Christianity and also because he was from the family of Barkat.

They tried to find him to kill. They were more furious because of the involvement of his elder brother Barkat with the blasphemy laws and his disappearance from Pakistan. Jacob also had to seek refuge abroad because apostasy is punishable with death in Islam. The legal system of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is clearly built on the Koranic laws. Considering the blood ties of Jacob with Barkat; considering the case of his apostasy; considering deaths of several Christians in the past, including the case of Tahir Iqbal who was poisoned because he became a Christian; and considering the blasphemy laws of the country that are based on the Koran, one can conclude that the life of Jacob was in a real danger in Pakistan, where ninety-six percent of the population are Muslim, where the trials are carried out by only Muslim judges, and where the police are Muslim. Jacob was likely to be killed or jailed to be tortured under false charges.

Some Christians provided protection to Jacob and his family. Meanwhile, he managed to flee the country with his family. Life was not that easy abroad. He went from one country to another because no country allowed him and his family to stay for more than a few months on visitor's visa. Barkat helped them in every possible way. Barkat's spouse, Margrette and their children, joined him in Canada within a year. Back in Pakistan, his wife had supported the family by sewing clothes for women.Barkat's immediate family was a great support in those difficult days. Within a short time of Barkat's arrival in Canada, his father died in Karachi. Barkat could not go to attend his funeral. After a few months, his mother also died-- the mother he loved so dearly. He could not go to her funeral either, because his presence in Pakistan was beset with dangers. Barkat is convinced that his persecution and long absence from his parents were responsible for their early death. He feels that he was not able to present at the time of their burial. They must have died broken hearted.

This is a profile of a victim of the blasphemy laws which are vague, discriminatory, and which have been used succesfully against minorities for business rivalries and to settle personal scores. Barkat was in jail for fifteen months because there is no bail for such victims. The court was aware of the consequence of releasing him openly. After the legal freedom, Barkat was not free in the real sense. He had to flee secretly from Pakistan. He is worried now about his relatives back home because of fanatics who may take revenge on anyone.

Barkat will never be able to visit the country where he was born, where his parents were born, where he studied, passed his life, was married, and where his children were born. On the whole, Pakistan is not that bad. He loves that country in spite of the fact he will never be able to breathe the air of that land again. God has blessed Pakistan in various ways, he says.

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