Although an ATC has acquitted all the 42 men accused, following their arrival at an agreement with the victims’ families, the actual facts may have been misrepresented
On January 29, an anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Lahore acquitted 42 people accused in cases pertaining to the lynching of two Muslim men in Youhanabad. The court also ordered their release unless they were wanted in another case.
It was said that the accused had reached an agreement with the victims’ families. But the story may be quite different from what is being projected in the media. TNS learns that the acquittal came because the prosecution failed to furnish substantive, corroborative and digital evidence.
The court order states: “When prosecution failed to establish the identity of accused persons in this case through substantive, corroborative, or digital evidence, then it cannot be safely held that prosecution has successfully proved the case against the accused without any shadow of doubt, and it is settled law that benefit of even slightest doubt always goes in favour of the accused.”
It is pertinent to ask here that if the accused are not guilty of the barbarous act of burning two innocent men, who is? Who are the real culprits? Why are they still at large? And if the accused are innocent, and they were wrongly implicated by the police in this case, who will be held responsible for the agony and anguish the suspects and their dear and near ones went through over the five years? Is the state ready to compensate for their suffering?
“However vigorously certain elements in the media might have created the impression that it all happened because a compromise had been reached between the accused and the complainant parties, it is utterly nonsense,” says Advocate Tahir Bashir, one of the lawyers who contended the case in the ATC on behalf of the accused.
“The court decided the case on merit. One can see that the eyewitnesses’ accounts are contradictory. Nonetheless, I can neither confirm nor reject the story of compromise altogether,” he adds.
Giving a detailed accounts of the court proceedings held so far, Bashir says that the incident took place in 2015, as a reaction to the suicide bombings outside two churches in the locality which left many dead and injured. It sparked protests which soon turned violent. Two innocent Muslims, later identified as Babar Nauman, a tailor by profession, and Hafiz Naeem, a glass cutter, who happened to be there at the time of the protest, were burnt alive by the mob.
Bashir maintains that shortly after the lynching took place, at least three first information reports (FIRs) — 391/15, 392/15, and 395/15 — were lodged against the accused. As many as 89 persons were booked under various charges, including vandalism and destruction. Of these, 42 were nominated in the lynching case under Section 302 of the PPC and Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorist Act (ATA).
The offence falling under Section 7 of ATA is non-compoundable, and cannot be converted into a compoundable offence even if the complainant pardons the accused or arrives at a settlement with him. It’s because the heinous crime is considered to be directly against the state of Pakistan.
During the course of the five-year long court proceedings, two suspects died in jail, while 47 others who had been apprehended after their nomination in FIRs No 391 and 392 later managed to get bails in their respective cases. On the other hand, the 40 others, booked under lynching charges, were still behind bars and could not be let off.
Joseph Francis, national director of CLAAS, an NGO working for the rights of the Christians which played a leading role in the release of the Youhanabad lynching accused, says that the past five years were a nightmare for the accused as well as their families.
Rumour has it that some members of the victims’ families accepted a sum of Rs15 million in diya’t (a form of blood money). While Advocate Tahir Bashir expresses his ignorance of the matter, he reveals that the suspects had filed an application in the court, under Section 345 (compounding offences) of the Code of Criminal Procedure. They had also tried to seek a trial under a compoundable offense, under the pretext that they had successfully reached a settlement with the victims’ families who now would have no objection to their acquittal.
Even though the court recorded the statements of victims’ families in which they told the court that they had forgiven the accused for the sake of God, it (the court) did not entertain their application, and decided the case keeping in view the substantive and corroborative evidence provided by the prosecution. (For the uninitiated, eyewitnesses’ accounts are called substantive evidence. Other evidence, like recovery of weapons and clubs etc from the accused, is called corroborative evidence. The footages of video recordings, and cell phone locations’ records etc are called corroborative digital evidence.)
According to Tahir, the courts usually give their verdict in homicidal cases mainly on the basis of eyewitnesses’ accounts, while corroborative and digital evidence aid the courts in reaching a conclusion. In the Youhanabad lynching case, the court referred to a number of lacunae and loopholes in the substantive, corroborative and digital evidences provided by the prosecution.
Ahsan Abbas, an advocate of the Lahore High Court, agrees with the notion that sometimes there is a lot of pressure from the high-ups on the judges hearing such cases. Chances of succumbing to pressure cannot be ruled out.
As per law, Section 7 of the ATA cannot be converted into a compoundable offence. “So it’s the duty of the prosecution to challenge the ATC’s decision in the higher courts,” Abbas says.
The current Kahna SDPO, Syed Iqbal Shahid, who was deputed at the same post at the time the Youhanabad incident happened, has a different story to tell. He says, “Being a part of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) of this case, I had ample opportunity to closely monitor and investigate the case from various aspects. The police left no stone unturned to identify and apprehend the real culprits.
“We carried out the whole investigation on merit, and not a single innocent person was implicated in the case. Besides, no high officials received any complaints of graft against the police.”
He insists that since Islamic jurisprudence allowed the victims’ families to forgive the accused of a murder for the sake of God or after accepting some monetary compensation in diyat, chances of such a settlement could not be ruled out. “I believe that five-year-long suffering that the accused and their families went through is enough punishment to teach them a lesson. Moreover, the victims’ families must have felt that in this case too they could not keep the accused behind bars for too long, as proving allegations against them wasn’t easy.”
Joseph Francis, national director of CLAAS, an NGO working for the rights of the Christians, which played a leading role in the release of the Youhanabad lynching accused, says that the past five years were a nightmare for the accused as well as their families. “The distress and misery they went through are inexpressible. During this period, they were subjected to all sorts of humiliation, torture and high-handedness. In jail, they faced discrimination and harassment from fellow inmates and prison officials. The CLAAS did everything in its capacity to get the suspects released by the court.”