Date: January 30, 2018
Move suggests suspect could be acquitted, advocates fear.
By Our Pakistan Correspondent
LAHORE, Pakistan, January 30, 2018 (Morning Star News) – A Muslim high school student accused of killing a Christian in Pakistan has been freed on bail due to gaps in police investigations, sources said.
Sharoon Masih, 17, died on Aug. 27, 2017 after Ahmed Raza beat him for drinking water from a glass used by all students in a classroom in Punjab Province’s Vehari District, as Raza considered Sharoon an “unclean” Christian, according to the deceased’s father. Ilyasab Masih said he based his account on what Muslim student witnesses had told him, but that they later changed their story. His son was the only Christian in the class.
Masih said Raza’s family has offered him more than $27,000 to settle the case, which he has refused.
Prosecuting attorney Allah Dad Khan said a police First Information Report (FIR) and post-mortem report left several gaps that enabled Raza to obtain bail on Jan. 8 from the Lahore High Court’s Multan bench. The FIR drafted by police states that Sharoon’s father had witnessed the accused beating his son, though Masih was not present at the time of the attack, Khan said.
“The defense will use this factual error for its benefit in the trial court,” Khan said.
The FIR states that in the course of Raza kicking and punching Sharoon, he hit him fatally in the abdomen, Khan said.
“However, the post-mortem report states that there were no torture marks on the deceased’s body, therefore the defense claimed that Sharoon had not died of the beating,” he said. “It’s quite clear that the police and the medical officer deliberately left gaps in the FIR and the post-mortem report to benefit the accused in the trial.”
By stating that the cause of Sharoon’s death was “uncertain,” the medical officer gave the court reason to give the accused benefit of the doubt, Khan said.
“It’s the medical examiner’s responsibility to state the cause of death,” he said. “A human being has died, yet the medical report does not state the reason of his death, which points to mala fide on the doctor’s part.”
The lawyer added that he had presented various media reports in court stating that the accused was trained in karate and had the ability to level fatal blows. The court rejected the arguments on grounds that media reports were not admissible.
Khan said it was unfortunate that Raza will eventually go free due to the weak FIR, which police registered in the absence of any legal representation for the deceased’s family.
The order by Judge Sardar Muhammad Sarfraz Dogar ruled that the “post-mortem report of deceased Sharoon has opined that there is no sign of physical injury or trauma seen on the body of the deceased, meaning thereby there is clear contradiction between the ocular and medical account. At this stage it is hard to determine that whether the death of the deceased occurred through any beat [sic] of the petitioner.”
The court then ordered Raza’s release on bail of 200,000 rupees (US$1,804).
Ilyasab Masih said Raza’s release brought shock and grief to the family, and that he was losing hope for justice for his slain son.
“For months we have been resisting the pressure being put on us by Raza’s family to agree to a settlement in return for money,” he told Morning Star News. “They initially offered me 2 million rupees [US$18,062) to pardon Raza and then made subsequent offers, raising the amount to 3 million rupees [US$27,092], but I refused to compromise over my son’s dead body.”
Masih, a father of five who works at a local wood-cutting factory on a meager salary, said that he was disappointed with the aid offered by various Christian organizations, church bodies and government officials.
“I am a poor man with no knowledge of legal matters,” he said. “Since the day the news of my son’s murder appeared in the media, we received offers of help from several outfits and government leaders, but all they did was take photographs with us and then leave, assuring us that they will follow up the case.”
Sen. Kamran Michael, Federal Minister for Human Rights at the time of the attack, also visited his home and assured him that he would go to any extent to ensure justice for Sharoon, Masih said.
“However, Sen. Michael’s visit also turned out to be a mere formality and a photo op, as he announced that he will build a school in the area after Sharoon’s name and will not rest until the murderer is convicted,” Masih said. “I don’t think he even remembers his promise made to us. My eldest son’s dead, and so is my hope for justice.”
Sen. Michael did not respond to efforts to reach him for comment.
Attorney Khan said that the defense had attempted to get Raza tried as a juvenile, but that prosecutors successfully contested this by having a six-member medical team conduct ossification tests and declare him between 18 and 20 years old.
Asked whether he will challenge the bail, Khan said he had not yet been approached by the engaging authority, the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), to file an appeal.
“I tried my best to thwart the bail, but there’s little that I could do in the face of a weak FIR and post-mortem report,” he said.
NCJP Executive Director Cecil Chaudhry, Jr. told Morning Star News that the NCJP will challenge the bail.
“The delay occurred as we could not get Ilyasab’s signatures, and also because of lawyers’ strikes in Multan over relocation of the courts,” he said.
Chaudhry said he had raised similar concerns with his team after reading the post-mortem report’s conclusion that there were no signs of torture on the body and that Sharoon died a “sudden death.”
High Chance of Acquittal
Christian rights activists Rufus Solomon and Riaz Anjum said the bail points toward a high likelihood that Raza will be declared not guilty.
“Grant of bail means that the accused has a bright chance of acquittal,” Anjum, an attorney who heads the Pakistan Center for Law and Justice, told Morning Star News. “It is unfortunate that the police deliberately filed a weak FIR to help the accused party. Otherwise, how is it possible that a single accused who murdered the boy in presence of so many witnesses is allowed to walk free?”
Solomon criticized government ministers and police for distorting the facts to hamper justice for the aggrieved family.
“Sen. Michael had stated on the floor of parliament that Sharoon’s killing was religiously motivated, therefore it was his duty to follow the case till its logical conclusion,” Solomon said. “That’s the problem with ‘selected’ lawmakers, they only tow their party line and are used to sweep such incidents under the rug by making hollow claims. The senator also announced that the government will build a school in Sharoon’s name, but even that declaration was a bid to placate the family and the media. Whatever has happened to that school?”
Solomon said it was heart-wrenching to see a killer walk free, “but this is a bitter reality that Pakistani Christians will have to live with.”
“Sharoon’s murder was not the first such incident, and it’s definitely not the last,” he said. “Such persecution will continue to happen until Pakistani Christians have an able political leadership that is not ‘selected’ by the mainstream parties and turned into puppets for achieving political goals.”
Witnesses Change Story
After Masih heard about the attack at the school and rushed to the hospital, classmates of Sharoon had told family members that Raza started a fight with Sharoon because the “unclean” Christian drank water from a glass used by all students.
The students who said that Raza had become aggressive over Masih drinking out of the glass changed their statements, however, so Masih decided not to mention it in the FIR he filed at the Model Town Police Station in Burewala on Aug. 30, he said.
“We have always had very cordial relations with Muslims of our area, and I did not want to make any allegation that could not be backed up by evidence or testimonies of witnesses,” he said. “It was also said that Sharoon and Ahmed started fighting after Ahmed blocked my son’s way when he was about to go out of the classroom.”
Police told Morning Star News that Raza had confessed to involuntary manslaughter, but that the killing was not religiously motivated. Raza told them that Sharoon inadvertently stepped on his mobile phone that was in his schoolbag, triggering the assault, but that he did not mean to kill him.
Police told Masih that they had taken statements from the entire class, sub-staff and faculty of the school, and that no one had corroborated the family’s assertion that students had said the fight was a result of religious prejudice.
Addendum: Sharoon Masih’s father, Ilyasab Masih, said he was disappointed in the lack of help from some Christian aid organizations. British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA) Chairman Wilson Chowdhry reports that Masih omitted mention of BPCA’s support: Praying with the family, leading protests and media campaigns, paying for Sharoon's funeral, paying for schooling for Sharoon's siblings, and supporting the lost wages of the father with a donation of £100 per month. BPCQ also offered an attorney, but the family had already been provided with one for free. Morning Star News confirmed that Masih's family had received such financial support from the BPCA.