Pakistan: Christians still waiting for justice 4 years after Gojra attack

(AP)
A Christian family rests in front of their destroyed house, after it was attacked by a mob in Gojra, Pakistan, Friday, Aug. 7, 2009

Four years after the horrific murder of eight Christians in Gojra, Pakistan, the community is still waiting for justice to be done.

The victims, who included children, were burnt alive when a mob of extremist Muslims went on the rampage in the Christian town on 1 August 2009.

Dozens of houses and a church were also torched during the attack, which was triggered by allegations of local Christians desecrating the Koran.  

Some eye witnesses claimed that the police stood by and ignored pleas for help from the Christians as the attack unfolded.

A subsequent investigation concluded that the Koran had not been desecrated as alleged.  

The Pakistani government rebuilt houses for the victims but the process of bringing the perpetrators to justice has proved more difficult.

Despite dozens of people being arrested in the immediate aftermath, no one has ever been convicted or imprisoned for the crime.  In 2011, the prosecution ground to a halt when a court acquitted 70 suspects, citing lack of evidence.

There has been further disappointment among Pakistan's Christians as the Punjab government has dithered on publishing the findings of the judicial tribunal set up to investigate the attack. It is believed the report proposes amendments to the blasphemy laws and pins the blame largely on the failure of the police to respond adequately to the attack.

The Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) said it was "deeply distressed" that so little had been done to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Nasir Saeed, Coordinator of CLAAS UK, said: "The inaction and bewildering lack of urgency in holding the culprits of the Gojra violence to account has set a dreadful and terrifying precedent – that those who attack and murder Christians in Pakistan are likely to get away with it.

"Persecution of Christians will continue so long as there is no deterrent to stop radical Muslims doing what they like and taking the law into their own hands. It is imperative that the authorities do whatever it takes to see the perpetrators caught, tried and punished. Otherwise we can expect more innocent blood to be shed."

The mood over the fourth anniversary of the attack has been even more sombre this year following the recent life imprisonment of one Christian man in Gojra, Sajjad Masih, for blasphemy, and the arrest of a Christian couple, Shafqat and Shaguftah Masih, who were accused of sending blasphemous text messages to a local Muslim.  

Blasphemy, which includes desecrating the Koran or making derogatory comments about the Prophet Muhammad, is a serious crime in Pakistan that can be punishable by lengthy prison sentences or even death. Allegations of blasphemy are often the trigger for violence against Christians and other religious minorities.

Human rights groups, including CLAAS, say the blasphemy laws are behind much of the persecution of Christians in Pakistan and that they are being misused by extremists to settle personal vendettas and harass Christians.

Mr Saeed said continued: "The blasphemy laws are being misused time and time again. The Pakistani government must amend the blasphemy laws so that they can no longer be used to make false accusations against innocent people. People who committed no crime are literally losing their lives because of these unjust laws."

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