At first, the streets of Youhanabad, a densely populated Christian locality in the suburbs of Lahore, appear calm. But the calm is kind of menacing, as the minority community seems very much in the grip of fear.
The traffic on the main roads is slow and many shops have been closed since the March 15 bomb blasts outside two churches that killed at least 21 people and sparked off violent protests in which two people (Muslim youth) were lynched and set ablaze. The two suspects of the ghastly incident are presently in police custody.
People in and around the area are reluctant to talk on the issue. The only thing they say they know is that the police raids the locality every other night in a bid to apprehend those involved.
After keeping mum on the lynching incident, the state machinery eventually responded. As the police inquiry reports go, the two Muslim youth were “innocent”, in that they had nothing to do with the church attacks. One of them, identified as Muhammad Naeem, is said to have some association with the Tableeghi Jamaat, a hardline party propagating Deobandi Islam.
Since the Jamaat bigwigs enjoy close ties with the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leadership, the police started raiding the area to bring the violent protestors and the killers of the two lynched youth to the court of justice. This obviously struck fear in the hearts of the Youhanabad locals.
So far, the number of arrests for lynching and damaging the state properties has gone beyond 100, claims a senior police official, not wanting to be named.
The arrested people are being presented before the Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) for further proceedings. Till the filing of this article, more than 50 people had been produced before the ATC and sent to jail for interrogation.
The Lahore High Court (LHC) has also ordered to produce the lynching suspects who have gone missing, before the court by April 6 (Monday) because many Christian groups have moved apex court saying that the police has detained dozens illegally.
“Many innocent people in the locality have left their houses temporarily for fear of being apprehended,” says Sohail Masih, a shopkeeper in Youhanabad.
“Our leadership is cooperating with the police in handing over the wanted youth,” he adds.
However, Sohail says, the focus of the police is merely on arresting the Christian youth and not providing security to the churches and the community. “In the present situation, the community is more vulnerable than ever.”
Another resident of the area, Yousaf Masih believes the police is using third-degree torture to extract confessionals which is creating a lot of fear. “They should arrest only those whose faces are visible in the video evidences,” he insists.
“The incident of lynching is highly condemnable but no state machinery has asked the policemen who were present on the crime scene as to why they handed over the youth to the violent mob thinking them as suspects.”
Outside the two churches, the many cross-streets in Youhanabad have posters and banners put up that salute the martyrs of the attacks. Some of these posters urge the community not to be violent.
A banner outside St John’s Church carries the picture of Sheikh Sadiq, a Muslim shopkeeper who was killed after the blast.
In a recent visit to the locality, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) delegates expressed serious concern on the Youhanabad Christian community’s complaints of police high-handedness in rounding up people on mere suspicion of their involvement in the lynching and torching of two young men.
In its statement, the HRCP called upon the law enforcing agencies to conduct their operations, especially those involving search for and arrest of suspects, in a manner that does not aggravate the Christian population’s feelings of insecurity and undue interference with their privacy and liberty.
“Over a hundred Christian citizens are allegedly being detained and subjected to third-degree methods without being produced in a court,” reads the statement. “Many people, including the shopkeepers, are said to have left the area in order to escape harassment.”
Several Christian women told the HRCP investigators that they had been trying in vain to locate the members of their families who had been picked up by the police.
Earlier, an angry mob of Muslims in Kot Radha Kishan lynched and burnt alive a young Christian couple — identified as Shama and Shahzad — over verbal allegations of desecrating the pages of the Holy Quran. The case is pending for framing of charges for more than 100 arrested accused persons till date.
The prosecution department says that the indictment is pending because the absconders are being arrested and testified. Two main alleged culprits of the case are still at large.
Last week, an Anti Terrorism Court (ATC) in Gujranwala issued the death warrants of seven people on April 8, 2015, sentenced for lynching two young brothers publicly in Sialkot in the late 2010. The death sentence of these people is confirmed from the LHC. The ATC ordered to hang them in case they would not move the Supreme Court as their right to appeal.
“Such incidents of lynching and mob violence are gradually increasing, especially in case such as blasphemy, because of the lacking writ of the state,” says Shaukat Javed, former Punjab police chief.
“The state is, sadly, a mere spectator in the scenario. There is a lack of political will in resolving the issue. Such incidents are normally taken up by a joint investigation team of various law enforcement and security agencies; that is why there are minimum chances of any partiality.”
Javed suggests the only possible way to control the increasing violence is to make state machinery, mainly the police, “free and independent like it is done in other countries.
“Unfortunately, the governments have always divested the police of the powers of initiative. Unless political interference is stopped and the police force functioning is not decentralised, such incidents will continue to happen,” he concludes.