They are raped, enslaved, falsely accused, beaten to death and have their homes bulldozed. Their only crime: to be Christians in Pakistan. Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy investigate. Photographs by Harriet Logan.
Her mother was the only one to hear the story. The seven-year-old whispered it once and since then has hardly talked at all. She was returning from a friend’s house at 11.30am, when someone called out. As she turned, four men from her village ran towards her. Nageena ran too, tripping on her scarf, stumbling on the unmade road. She is not sure why she ran – because they were running, because they had never spoken to her before, because the only man she had ever talked to was her father. But the four men were faster, cornering her, catching her. She could remember being pushed through a wooden door and into a dark room, which smelt of damp sacking and grass. She screamed but could not describe what happened next.
Villagers heard her crying and a crowd gathered outside the dera, or cow shed. Ghulam Masih saw the commotion, ran over and pulled open the door. Inside he saw Alla, Ditta, Rashid and Javid, the sons of his neighbour, standing over his daughter, her clothes tangled with straw, her legs covered in blood. As he scooped Nageena into his arms, the four men backed away and ran across a rice field.
Ghulam and Shehnaz, his wife, carried their daughter to the police station, filed a criminal complaint and were put on the bus to Shekhupura hospital, in Pakistan’s Punjab province. It was 10.30pm by the time they arrived, and Dr Zahida Noor was about to go home. “Hymen torn off, first-degree tear, fresh bleeding, a wound and tear marks on her right and left thigh, semen and blood stains taken from clothes,” the medical report concluded. Dr Noor told Ghulam and Shehnaz that their daughter’s internal injuries were so severe that she would never be able to have children.
Over the next two weeks, as Nageena hid under her hospital blanket, the Sharqpur police arrested Alla, Ditta, Rashid and Javid, after dozens of villagers came forward with their names. It would be another six weeks before Nageena would talk again to her mother, and when she did it was to ask why the four rapists were back in her village. Mushtaq Ahmed, inspector of police, had freed them and closed the case. He said he could find no evidence and told Nageena’s family to forget the matter. But Ghulam continued to demand justice and refused gifts of a new home, money, sweets and clothes from the men who had raped his daughter.
Nineteen months later, the family thought his determination had paid off. They received a letter from a new government department, the Human Rights Ministry of Pakistan, which said it had reviewed the criminal file and decided to award Nageena £200 compensation. Two weeks later, Ghulam Masih was back at Sharqpur police station.
This time he was lying half-naked with his face in the dirt, heavy iron chains around his wrists and ankles. Inspector Mushtaq, his silver belt-buckle polished, his moustache lacquered into two perfect twists, ordered his officer to wield the chittar, a large leather strap. Mushtaq liked to supervise beatings under the enormous deodar tree that grew outside the colonial cloisters of his station.
As the belt cut across Ghulam’s back, at 4.30pm on October 20 last year, a Lahore High Court bailiff rushed through the gates and forced an order into the inspector’s hands. Ghulam, it stated, had been illegally detained for 14 days, prevented from seeing a lawyer, repeatedly beaten and framed for a murder he could not possibly have committed. The only witnesses to have seen him allegedly kill an old woman were his daughter’s rapists, and their statements were contradicted by villagers who had been working with Ghulam in the fields at the time.
Why had the word of four men accused of the rape of a child been acted upon without investigation, while the report on Nageena’s assault lay gathering dust in the inspector’s office? The prisoner was a Christian, Inspector Mushtaq told us, and the men Ghulam had accused of raping his daughter were good Muslims. The inspector said he had no reason to disbelieve them. Turning his back, he led Ghulam to the cells and said, “My first duty is to Islam. The courts will take a similar view, and Ghulam Masih will be hanged. You’ll see.”
Shehnaz, who had come with the bailiff in order to catch a glimpse of her husband, must have heard him shout from his cell, “I would rather die than drop the charges against the men who raped my daughter.”
Ghulam, Shehnaz and Nageena’s story seems difficult to believe: a little girl now mute after a horrendous assault, a mother so frightened she will rarely leave her home, and a father facing a death sentence for pursuing justice. But for Pakistan’s three million Christians, the story symbolises their fragile place in a now volatile society.
Nageena was raped because she was a Christian. In the eyes of her attackers, her religion made her worthless, vulnerable and unlikely to be believed. Her father is facing a death sentence because he dared to challenge a judicial system in which the word of a Muslim is officially worth more than that of a Christian.
Across the Punjab, where the vast majority of Christians live, communities that had lived together for decades are now divided by religion. In provincial towns such as Sahiwal and Gujranwala, scores of Christians are in jails and police cells, remanded on spurious charges. In Lahore, judges uncritically accept cases lodged against Christians rather than face the ire of Muslims in the public gallery. Legislation enacted more than 100 years ago by the British to protect the religious sensibilities of all communities is now being used to persecute minorities. In Arifwala, a village in southern Punjab, the merest suggestion of blasphemy sent a Christian to death row. In Shanti Nagar, a Christian settlement in the southwest, it took only a whiff of heresy for a mob to raze the village.
“Years of corrupt government and financial mismanagement have crippled Pakistan, and there are those who wish to take advantage of the situation and push us back to the mind-set of the 7th century, a tribal age when Islamic law was first written,” warned Abid Hassan Minto, the Muslim president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, one of the country’s most senior advocates. “The zealots are gaining power, and the judiciary and criminal justice system may not be strong enough to resist them.”
The day after we visited Ghulam Masih in jail, he appeared before the Lahore High Court. The judge refused to admit the evidence of his torture, illegal detention or the clear malice that had led to his false arrest. Ghulam was sent for trial for the murder of a 57-year-old Muslim woman and will be hanged if found guilty. His daughter’s rapists remain free.
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