Pakistan: Asma Jahangir escapes January 8 assassination attack Print E-mail

Asma Jahangir – On the Hit List

Asma Jahangir, Pakistan’s most famous human rights advocate, has survived an audacious assassination attempt by suspected security agencies personnel yesterday evening near Kashmoor. She remained safe but her car has been damaged. Asma was on her way to Dera Bughti alongside with Afrasayab Khatic to visit the situation of Baluchistan. The aim of the attack was to prevent the HRCP team from visiting the area to investigate any human rights abuses in the government offensive against militant tribesmen in Balochistan, Ms Jahangir said.

The Labour Party of Pakistan and NGOs plan to protest the incident today (Monday 9th January) at 3 pm outside the Lahore Press Club.

According to the government, Ms Jahangir’s car was targeted by ‘miscreants’ and was escorted to safety by security forces. Ms Jahangir denied this vehemently. She said Afrasiab Khattak, former HRCP chairman, left Multan for Sui on Sunday. They were accompanied by journalists in a separate car. The cars were photographed from Multan to DG Khan by what appeared to be security personnel, Ms Jahangir said. As the convoy approached the Balochistan border, a man pointed a torch at HRCP officials’ car and then two gunmen sprayed bullets around the car, not actually hitting it. The driver reversed the car. The journalists’ car was untouched. An FC unit is stationed half a kilometre from the site but paramilitary soldiers did not help the HRCP team. They drove to the FC post to report the incident. Ms Jahangir said they would spend the night there and head towards Sui on Monday.

Another HRCP team went from Quetta to Sui on Sunday. They were stopped by security forces, but they managed to get there via a detour. The two HRCP teams plan to set off for Dera Bugti today after meeting up in Sui. staff report

Recent Attack
Previously an an attack on Asma Jahangir and her family came at dawn on Thursday 19th October when eight armed men raided her family home in Lahore. Asma’s sister, Hina Jalani, also an attorney, had left for a meeting half an hour earlier, but her brother and his wife were beaten by the intruders who attempted to kidnap the couple. In the scuffle one of the assailant’s guns went off accidentally alerting the house guard who opened fire.

In the ensuing gun battle, the gang fled abandoning their car, which had been stolen the previous day. Inside the vehicle, the police discovered identity cards and a telephone number which led to the arrest of one of the suspects in the attack. Abdul Qayyum alias Quma, aged 20, from Sector-D Township was arrested shortly after the attack. Quma admitted to police that the motive for the raid was to kill Asma Jahangir, her sister and their families because they had defended two Christians accused of blasphemy earlier in the year.

Asma Jahangir told me in a telephone interview, “I am a target because I have defended people accused of blasphemy. These people say anyone who defends a blasphemer is a blasphemer and should be killed. But as a lawyer we should have the independence to defend anyone.” She continued, “I have lived with this kind of pressure for some time. It’s not new to me. They have threatened my life before but somehow I didn’t think it would go this far. My family are shocked and traumatised by the incident. But as I say, it’s nothing new. That’s the way it is in Pakistan.”

Prime Minister Benazzir Bhutto has asked the Inspector General of the Punjab Police to personally insure the safety of Ms Jahangir. However the media report a surprisingly lax police investigation; the gang have still not been arrested despite knowing the identity of the terrorist group and its leader. Editorials call her escape a “miracle” and glowing accounts of this courageous warrior for human rights include the following: “Small in stature, Asma Jahangir stands tall. She is not a human rights “activist”, she actually acts! She has more courage in her right thumb than have all the rest of the “activists” and ‘higher ups” in their hands.”

The News writes, ‘Asma Jahangir is one hell of a lady. She is the kind of person who inspires great things in anyone who has the privilege of being her friend, colleague or acquaintance. She has all the qualities you would expect in a woman who lives by what she believes in and who has put her natural gifts to such good use, not for herself but for her sisters and brothers in a country which does not, cannot and will not appreciate her value, or indeed the value of the singularly few like her.”

Asma Jahangir is a brilliant lawyer and Pakistan’s best known spokesperson for human rights. She is conscious of the dangers lurking in every shadow across the street but is determined that this darkness will not curb her stand for the truth. Asma led the defence of Salamat Masih, the young boy accused of scribbling blasphemous words on the wall of a mosque. Facing execution for this “crime” of blasphemy (section 295~C of the Pakistan Penal Code) it became evident that this was a trumped up charge when it was confirmed that the boy was illiterate and only learned to write his name while in prison.

The case hit the headlines worldwide and eventually he was acquitted. However, it aroused strong feelings in the country as the extremists vowed revenge and the threat of violence was borne out in several terrifying incidents.

* Masked gunmen opened fire in April 1994 following one of the court hearings. Salamat was wounded and Manzoor Masih, also accused of blasphemy, died immediately, leaving a widow and several children.

* A one-million rupee (about £20,000) reward was offered in July 1994 for the murder of Pakistan’s Minister of Law over remarks he had made about changing the blasphemy law.

Asma herself became a target and in July 1994, stickers and posters appeared on buses, cars, walls, throughout Lahore calling for her execution.

At the time, Asma told me, ‘the stickers are professionally produced, two colour and glossy. The text is a call to all Moslems, stating that I am among the worst of the blasphemers. The message says, “Find her and kill her!” I have been active in many human rights issues and defended many blasphemy cases. As a result, I am seen as one of the key figures involved in this issue. The extremists have threatened others and now they want to silence my voice. l think it’s important to show that we are not intimidated by such tactics.”

Despite knowing the identity of the terrorist group who circulated the stickers the police have still not investigated the incident nor charged anyone involved. Through the trial of Salamat Masih, an armed guard accompanied Asma although she told me that she didn’t want such interference to dominate her life. Asma told me that a lone gunman
was found on the roof of a building adjacent to the courtroom where Salamat’s case was being heard. She said, “The police questioned him but he was released. They didn’t even get his name or address.”

At one point, Salamat Masih’s trial was halted by an enraged mob in a riot-like scene, demanding the death of the defence lawyers. Failing to find Asma, the mob attacked her car assaulting her driver. Afterwards Asma joked, “My friends said we saved your driver but we couldn’t save your car.”

Protected by bodyguards, she left the court under police escort. A few days after the riot a letter sent to her office carried a chilling threat. Asma told me, “A hand written letter was delivered saying that he (the author of the letter) had been in court on the day of the riot with a gun intending to shoot me. The letter said, “I’m going to hunt you down till you are dead. This is my mission. Pressed on the incident, Asma recalls a man in her line of vision on the day of violence in the court but she is adamant that her life will not be ruled by bodyguards and conspiracies.

Following the release of Salamat Masih, Asma warned that his acquittal should not be a cause for celebration. Sadly, her assessment has proved to be correct. In November, Jubilee Campaign were given a detailed report on the death of Mukhtar Masih, a Christian accused of blasphemy who died in police custody. Mukhtar had been accused of allegedly writing a blasphemous letter to a Muslim priest. One Pakistani newspaper reports, “The Nishtarabad police arrested him just to ascertain whether or not the accused had written any such letter. But on Tuesday Mukhtar Masih died in mysterious circumstances.”

Mukhtar is merely a tragic remind that the tyranny against the Christian community is still intense and severe. Defending the innocent and oppressed has made Asma a target in the assassins gun sights. The attack on her home could have been catastrophic. Despite considerable information being available, the police appear to be “dragging their feet” in the investigation. Quma, arrested shortly after the attack on Asma’s home, admitted that he belonged to a terrorist group, Sunni Tehrik, and claimed responsibility for the murder of extremist religious leaders. The leader of the gang was identified as Saleem Jilani and his deputy named as Raza Konain. The group had plans to kill other religious and political figures in Pakistan and admitted to 28 other offences. Their motive was emphatic and explicit. They intended to slaughter Asma and her family because she had defended Christians accused of blasphemy.

Asma has asked Jubilee Campaign to press the Bar of the Commonwealth Law Committee to support her, and of course, Jubilee’s Parliamentary Officer, Wilfred Wong, will be lobbying the Foreign Office to stress our concern over this outrageous issue. We will also be calling for the Government of Pakistan to be guaranteeing her protection and to launch a high level probe and police enquiry.

Asma Jahangir is someone who has courage to equal her convictions. She appears to be that rare person who isn’t galvanised by western preoccupations of media profile, money or power. It is this purity of purpose and compelling mission for justice that gives Asma a stature that dwarfs other “leaders”; an instinct and quality that makes her vulnerable to the assassin’s bullet but paradoxically gives her power over her attacker.

Although not a Christian herself, it is evident that the Christian community are in her debt, and that she has placed herself in peril by identifying so strongly with people like Salamat who would certainly have perished without a valiant defender like Asma.