RATIONALIST INTERNATIONAL

Bulletin # 101 (20 August 2002)

http://www.rationalistinternational.net

IN THIS ISSUE

BLASPHEMY CASES IN PAKISTAN

Supreme Court acquits Ayub Masih

A new death sentence

Dr. Shaikh: High Court decision in pending

INDIA: SATI IS BACK! — By Sanal Edamaruku

Bangladesh: Muslim fundamentalists get Hindu playwright arrested

Israel: Army bill sparks outrage

 

BLASPHEMY CASES IN PAKISTAN

Supreme Court acquits Ayub Masih

Ayub Masih, who was sentenced to death in a blasphemy case in April 1998, has been acquitted by the Pakistan Supreme Court on 16 August 2002. The judgment set aside the decision of the Multan High Court, which confirmed the death sentence of the lower court in July 2001.

Ayub, a 35-year-old Christian from Chak Arifwala village in Punjab, was arrested and accused of blasphemy under Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code in October 1996, when his neighbor Mohammed Akram, in order to grab his plot of land, complained that Ayub had offended Prophet Mohammed. Ayub denied any blasphemous utterances and insisted that he was falsely accused. Amnesty International declared him later a prisoner of conscience.

In April 1998, he was convicted and placed on death row. He had not found a lawyer till then, who was ready to defend him. The case gathered international attention, when Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad, who had organized Christian protest processions for Ayub’s rescue, allegedly suicided on hearing about the death sentence. This mounted international pressure on the government under then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The death sentence was temporarily suspended, but reinstated by decision of the Multan High Court in July 2001. Ayub filed his final appeal to the Supreme Court.

Ayub informed his Christian supporters abroad that he was several times tortured during his detention and that fundamentalist co-prisoners made two attempts on his life in November 1997 and in January 1999, which he survived. A group of fundamentalists has threatened to kill him and his lawyer, if he was acquitted.

The three-judge bench of the Supreme Court overruled the High Court decision without giving reasons. Details would be recorded later, announced the short court order.

 

A new death sentence

Meantime a court in Lahore has passed a new death sentence in a blasphemy case. The victim is Wajih-ul Hassan, 27, who had been arrested and accused on the complaint of a lawyer with the name Ismail Quereshi, who reported that he had received letters from Hassan, criticizing Prophet Mohammed for action contradicting his teachings. Wajih-ul Hassan has been working with the husband of prominent advocate and Human Rights campaigner Asma Jahangir. Besides the death penalty, a fine of 270,000 Rupees was imposed.

 

Dr. Shaikh: High Court decision in pending

In the case of Dr. Younus Shaikh, the judgment of the High Court in Islamabad, which will decide over the appeal against the death sentence, is awaited any day. This decision, which could mean freedom for Dr. Shaikh, is already pending for more than one month now.

Meantime negotiations are going on, asking for special protection for Dr. Shaikh and for free passage out of Pakistan, in case the High Court in Islamabad decides for his acquittal and release from jail. This is most necessary, as the fundamentalists don’t accept acquittals in blasphemy cases and often try to "correct" them with guns and knifes [see Bulletin # 99]. Just released from jail, Dr. Shaikh’s life would be in greatest danger!

At this moment, every voice speaking up for Dr. Shaikh counts. Please write – once more – a letter to the President of Pakistan, General Musharraf, requesting him to use his high office to rescue Dr. Shaikh’s life! We demand Dr. Shaikh’s acquittal and release from jail, but this alone is not enough. Please stress the importance of subsequent special protection. Even if the President insists on the independence of the judicial system in his country, as he did earlier, he should be politely reminded that we hold him in any case responsible for Dr. Shaikh’s safety and protection from fundamentalist attackers.

This is the Email address of the President of Pakistan: CE@pak.gov.pk

Please, send a copy of your letter to Rationalist International at the following address: Campaign@rationalistinternational.net

Please do write a letter now, tomorrow it could be too late!

 

INDIA: SATI IS BACK!

by Sanal Edamaruku

On 6 August, Kuttu Bai died in the flames on her husband’s pyre. This happened in Tamoli Patna village near Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. There have been more than thousand eyewitnesses, but it seems extremely difficult to establish the details of Kuttu Bai’s death. The latest case of sati is surrounded by a conspiracy of silence. The local administration called it "suicide"; the state government did not exclude murder, presumably for property (Kuttu Bai had five acres of land in her name), but insisted that it was not sati anyway. Therefore no case was registered under the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act 1987.

There are many versions about the events, which followed the death of 70-year-old Mallu Prasad Nai, a barber, in the night of 6 August. In the early morning, an anonymous caller alarmed the police in Sahela that a sati was going to happen. It is disputed if the two police officers on duty rushed immediately with a motorbike to the spot, or if they took two hours for the eight kilometers. When they reached, they found a crowd of more than thousand people thronging the burning pyre and a confused elderly woman standing near the flames. The crowd cheered and egged her on to jump into the pyre, the officers reported later. When they tried to interfere, the villagers became violent and started throwing stones on them, while Kuttu Bai was fast put on the pyre. The police officers, one of them wounded, tried to come to her rescue, but they were brutally attacked and had to run for their lives, they reported. When two hours later the district collector arrived, Kuttu Bai was long dead.

The police arrested 15 people on murder charges, among them her two sons Ashok Kumar (35) and Raj Kumar (26), and eleven others for assaulting the police officers. Meantime more and more people from the nearby villages poured in, finally around 8,000. The tale of Kuttu Bai’s death changed fast. They had tried in vain to stop her from burning herself, protested her neighbors, sons and daughters-in-law, she had been like "possessed", determined to die, nothing could stop her. They did not dare to stop her, say others, because she had already become the goddess Sati Devi. Soon she was glorified for her holy sacrifice and people from surrounding villages flocked to pay their respect to the sati at temples.

The claims of the embarrassed authorities that this was just a case of murder or suicide only, as no religious ceremonies had been performed before the burning, were given the lie by these developments. Moreover, the history of the place does not leave much scope for interpretations. This is not the first sati in the poverty-stricken region called Bundelkhand. Over the last 150 years, five clear cases of sati have been recorded in Tamoli Patna village, the earliest in 1865, the latest 52 years back.

Sati, the public burning of a widow on the pyre of her husband’s funeral, is banned in India since over 170 years. This is mainly the merit of the social reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who started a powerful campaign against sati from Bengal in 19th century. He impressed the scholar and poet Henry Vivian Derozio, who was one of the founding fathers of the rationalist movement in India. Derozio wrote a unique and touching poem about sati, which was read by the wife of the then British Governor Lord William Bentick. Lady Bentick was able to convince her husband that the policy of non-interference, which the Britishers up till then preferred concerning social conflicts in India, was nothing but inhuman. Lord Bentick invited Raja Ram Mohan Roy and made a decree in 1829 that in the name of the British Crown sati be banned. Approached by rich Indian conservatives that it is an old tradition in India to burn widows, he simply answered: It is an old tradition in Britain to hang widow murderers!

Initially, the tradition of sati existed only among the ruling Rajputs during the Mughal period. Mass janhar, a form of group suicide, was committed by the wives of vanquished warriors by jumping from the roof top of a castle wall into a fire raging below, probably to save their honor and to avoid humiliation in the hands of the victorious invaders.

However, in the course of time, the custom became widely prevalent among other sections of people, mainly because of the Hindu society’s extremely cruel treatment of widows. Still today, widows are often victims of social crimes, abused and raped and punished by social rejection. Sati is often promoted by in-laws, who benefit from the elimination of the additional claimant of the husband’s properties. There are laws like the Widow-Remarriage Act to ensure proper settlement of young widows, but the social enmity against them remains till today a terrible fact.

During the last years, the inhuman tradition of sati seems to be silently reviving. In 1987, the sati of 27-year-old Roop Kanwar became a national sensation. She died in Deorala, a small town in Rajastan between Delhi and Jaipur, in front of thousand eyewitnesses – but it could never be finally established, if she jumped heroically into the fire or was pushed by her in-laws. 39 people were arrested and accused of murder, after massive media pressure – but all of them were acquitted soon. The government obviously sabotaged the case for political conveniences. On the 13th day after her death, despite the High Court’s ban on gathering at the site, 300,000 people attended a religious function in her memory. Since then, despite bans the stream of visitors to the site never stopped.

The Indian Rationalist Association, in a letter to the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh, has demanded a judicial investigation into the case. All officials responsible for the failure to prevent the sati have to be suspended, demands the letter, and besides the Indian Penal Code, the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act 1987 is to be implemented. Under this Act even eyewitnesses can be arrested.

*

Meantime, the National Commission of Women has sent an investigation team to Tamoli Patna. The Chief Minister has ordered disciplinary action against all government employees stationed in the village and imposed a collective fine on the residents. The local panchayat will not receive any financial assistance for two years, he announced.

 

Bangladesh: Muslim fundamentalists get Hindu playwright arrested

Sambit Saha, a Hindu playwright from Dinajpur, has been arrested by the police on 16 August. He is charged with offending the religious sentiments of the Muslims with his satirical play Katha Krishnakali, performed at a recent drama festival. The arrest followed complaints about alleged offences against Prophet Mohammed. But Saha insists that in his script there is no mentioning whatsoever about the prophet. The play had been performed in several towns during the last months without causing any problems. But some days before the arrest, a performance in Faridpur was banned, after local Islamic fundamentalists complained against it. They called for punishment of playwright Sambit Saha and his group of about 30 performers.

If Saha is found guilty, he could face two years imprisonment. Since he belongs to the Hindu minority in the country, which is suffering severe harassment since the last general elections in October 2001, which brought the fundamentalist-friendly government of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to power, he has even reason to fear for his life.

 

Israel: Army bill sparks outrage

Finally, the Parliament has passed the controversial army bill, which may deepen the rift between secular and religious citizens of Israel. After six hours of heated debate, the legislators decided 51-41 (with 5 abstentions) to exempt the rigorous Orthodox Yeshiva students from compulsory military service. The decision sparked outrage all over the country. Many Israelis find it completely unacceptable that some 30,000 future Rabbis and private Talmud scholars are released from the burden of military duties, while all other 18-year-old Israeli men have to serve for three years in the army and make themselves available for at least one month of annual reserve duty during the following 33 years. The injustice of this unequal treatment on the basis of religion is felt especially hard in a time, where so many soldiers have been killed in Israeli-Palestinian fights that the army had to call up reserves. The argument of the Orthodox fraction in Parliament that by preserving a sacred heritage, the Yeshiva students were serving at a different front for the survival of the Jewish people, could not convince many outside the Orthodox camp.

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Honorary Associates: Dr. Pieter Admiraal (The Netherlands), Prof. Mike Archer (Australia), Katsuaki Asai (Japan), Prof. Colin Blakemore (UK), Sir Hermann Bondi (UK), Prof. Vern Bullough (UK), Dr. Bill Cooke (New Zealand), Dr. Helena Cronin (UK), Prof. Richard Dawkins (UK), Joseph Edamaruku (India), Prof. Antony Flew (UK), Prof. Jim Herrick (UK), Christopher Hitchens (USA), Ellen Johnson (USA), Prof. Paul Kurtz (USA), Lavanam (India), Dr. Richard Leakey (Kenya), Iain Middleton (New Zealand), Henry Morgentaler (Canada), Taslima Nasreen (Bangladesh), Steinar Nilsen (Norway), Prof. Jean-Claude Pecker (France), James Randi (USA), Prof. Ajoy Roy (Bangladesh), Dr. G N Jyoti Shankar (deceased, USA), Barbara Smoker (UK), Prof. Harry Stopes-Roe (UK), Prof. Rob Tielman (The Netherlands), David Tribe (Australia), Barry Williams (Australia), Richard Wiseman (UK) and Prof. Lewis Wolpert (UK)

Sanal Edamaruku, President of Rationalist International, can be contacted at Edamaruku@rationalistinternational.net