Pakistani Police Accuse Christians of Killing Priest
Lahore High Court Orders New Police Investigation

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, September 8 (Compass) -- Pakistani police investigating the July 5
murder of a Roman Catholic priest have accused three local Christians of
killing Fr. George Ibrahim during an armed robbery attempt.

Identified as Sharif Masih, 30, Naimat Masih, 55, and Aslam Masih, 28, the
three Christians have reportedly been detained since July 9, although police
did not formally accuse them before a local magistrate until mid August.

Together with Mohammed Afzel, a Muslim suspect identified as a repeat-offender
burglar, the three Christians have denied any involvement in the crime. All
four are being held in judicial lock-up in Okara, near the Renala Khurd village
where Fr. Ibrahim was shot to death by six gunmen. Formal charges have yet to
be framed against the "suspects" before the Okara Additional Sessions Court.

"The local police tried to 'cook up' evidence that the murder was just a
robbery," the Catholic Church's National Justice and Peace Commission (NJPC)
director Peter Jacob told Compass.

But according to a Christian lawyer following the case, "We have solid and
concrete evidence to prove in court that only Fr. George was the target. It
wasn't a robbery or some property dispute among Christians like the police
claimed. It was terrorism."

The only eyewitness to the crime, the priest's cook Pervez Pyara, was not
attacked by the killers. He told police in his First Information Report (FIR)
on the day of the murder that Fr. Ibrahim had been "targeted on purpose."

In a supplementary statement filed by Pyara later the same day, he specified
that Fr. George had told him he was receiving death threats from Shahzina
Sadique, the former principal of a girls' school. The Muslim headmistress had
openly opposed the government's decision last fall to denationalize the school
and return it to church control under Fr. Ibrahim.

Pyara reported that after the assailants had killed Fr. Ibrahim, he had heard
them shout that their "next victims" were the sisters living in the convent on
the church compound. One of those nuns has since declared in writing that
during court proceedings on the turnover of the convent school, Sadique
declared before the court that Fr. Ibrahim was an "enemy of Islam" and must be
killed.

According to a Daily Times report on July 10, Sadique's husband is president of
the local chapter of Anjum Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a banned terrorist
organization in Pakistan.

Pyara was held overnight for interrogation by local police after filing his
statements.

During a fact-gathering inquiry by a team from the Lahore-based Center for
Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) on July 8, an investigative officer
stated that they were not involving Sadique in the investigation "because no
one from the priest's family or church has involved her in the case."

At a press conference called a month after the priest's death, Catholic Bishop
of Faisalabad Joseph Coutts declared that the local police had failed to make
any progress in the case. "On the contrary, they were harassing a number of
poor Christians of the area,"  Coutts said. The cleric noted that in Pakistan
it was "common for the police to beat people and use torture" to force false
confessions.

In a protest rally in Lahore the same day, Christian lawmaker Pervez Rafique
accused regional police of "protecting the killers."

With the local police refusing to question the individual nominated by
Christian leaders as the prime suspect, the NJPC filed a petition September 4
on behalf of the four arrested "suspects" before the Lahore High Court.

"The presiding judge gave an order to the police to reinvestigate the case,"
Jacob told Compass today from Lahore.

The initial investigation officer was reportedly "scolded" by the judge for not
consulting his senior police officers on the investigation, which is to be
conducted by a new set of officials.

Jacob said lawyers working on the case hoped to have the necessary documents to
file a bail petition for the suspects "within a few days." Charges against the
four prisoners have yet to be framed formally before the Okara Additional
Sessions Court.

Although the NJPC asked for a medical exam of the four after they had been put
into lock-up, "We don't expect it to be correct," Jacob admitted. "But their
conditions now are much better," he said.

"Everyone knows who is the person responsible for this murder," a Catholic
Church source told Compass today from Faisalabad. "There are known groups of
fundamentalist Muslims behind this, but the government and the police are
afraid of them."

"They are not arresting her because her family is very powerful," commented
another. "And she has very good contacts with the high-up police officers."

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