LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – Poor Christians in Pakistan commonly see police target them for extortion on false charges, and last week such a case ended in the death of a 24-year-old Christian, relatives said.
On the assumption that Christians with few legal resources can be targeted with impunity in the 96-percent Muslim country, policemen on May 29 killed Waqas Masih when his uncle refused their demand for money after they threatened to file false charges, the relatives said. Police are now pressuring the family to drop the murder case, they said.
The slain young man’s mother, a widow who belongs to a Pentecostal church, told Morning Star News that three policemen forced their way into the home of her brother, rickshaw driver Saleem Masih, in in Punjab Province’s Haider Colony, Gujrat District. Saleem Masih had recruited Waqas Masih and other relatives to help him with a construction project at his residence.
“Around 6 p.m., I was informed that three policemen had beaten my son to death,” Khalida Bibi, a sweeper at a hospital, told Morning Star News. “The police are now mounting pressure on us to ‘reconcile’ with their accused colleagues. They were initially reluctant to even arrest the accused, but eventually they had to take them into custody when we threatened to launch protests.”
Saleem Masih’s son, Emmanuel Saleem, told Morning Star News that he and other relatives were sitting in the courtyard of their home when three officers identified only as Shoaib, Shehbaz and Saqib forced their way in around 5:15 p.m.
“We asked them what they wanted, to which they said that they had information that we are drug peddlers and that they had raided the house to recover the narcotics,” he said, adding that the allegation was frivolous as the three policemen were notorious for blackmailing poor people in the area.
“We are poor Christians, but we earn our livelihood with honesty and integrity,” Emmanuel Saleem said. “We knew that the policemen were there for extorting money, but since we had done nothing wrong, my father chose to confront them rather than succumb to their blackmail.”
A heated argument ensued between his father and the police, and they began threatening to file false charges against him and other family members, he said.
“This must have panicked Waqas, who ran outside the house,” Emmanuel Saleem said. “The three cops ran after him, as did my other cousins, Qaiser and Dawood. The cops got hold of Waqas soon after and started hitting him mercilessly with punches, kicks and gun butts. Qaiser and Dawood tried to save Waqas from the police torture, but they were pushed back and warned not to intervene in the beating.”
His two cousins had returned to the house to tell his father what had happened when the policemen arrived and told them to check on Waqas Masih, saying he was “feigning illness,” Emmanuel Saleem said.
“We immediately rushed toward Waqas and saw him lying on the street, motionless,” he said, adding that he had already died by the time they arrived.
Waqas Masih worked as an assistant gardener at a government-run, rural health center. Asked why he had run from the house, Emmanuel Saleem said police often target poor Christians for extortion and file fake charges against them when they don’t have anything to pay. He said this was not the first time local police had illegally entered a home and beat Christians.
“Waqas was a very honest and hard-working young man who had no criminal history,” he said. “I guess he got frightened after the policemen threatened to implicate the cousins in fake cases.”
He confirmed that officials were pressuring the family to “pardon” the accused and give statements in their favor.
“We have even been offered money, besides threats to withdraw the FIR [First Information Report], but we have decided to hold our ground,” he said.
Gujrat District Police Officer (DPO) Jehanzeb Nazeer, however, denied that the accused officers were pressuring the family.
“I immediately ordered the registration of the FIR, and the three accused officials were taken into custody within 72 hours of the incident,” he said, but he added that the officers have not been formally charged with murder as the initial post-mortem report did not reveal the cause of death.
“The initial post-mortem report does not state any injury marks on the deceased’s body or the cause of death, therefore we are now waiting for a full report from the Punjab Forensic Science Agency [PFSA] before reaching a final conclusion about the incident,” he said.
Initial investigation showed the three officers raided the house on a tip that drug peddlers were present, he said.
“Waqas fled when the officials sought to frisk him, resulting in a chase,” he said. “The boy reportedly fell on the road, and one constable claims that he only kicked him twice in anger. The boy died on the spot, and the officials fled the scene.”
When asked if the deceased had any criminal record, the police chief said that they had not found any case registered against him.
Nazeer denied that the three accused officers extorted money from citizens.
“Since the matter involves a minority community, I took immediate action so that no one tries to exploit the situation for their ulterior motives,” he said. “Action will be taken in accordance with the law if the PFSA report points to police high-handedness.”
The three officders were taken into custody so that they could not influence the investigation or fabricate evidence against the victim, he added.
Pakistan is ranked fifth on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2018 Word Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.