LAHORE / SIALKOT, Sept 15: Tension gripped Sialkot, Daska, Sambrial and Pasrur after a young Christian man who was arrested on blasphemy charges was found dead inside his jail cell on Tuesday.
Jail Superintendent Ishtiaq Lodhi claimed that the accused, Robert alias Fanish Masih, being kept in solitary confinement, had committed ‘suicide’ in his cell. But his relatives and members of the Christian community refused to accept the jail authorities’ claims and alleged that he was tortured to death.
Robert, 19, belonged to a poor family and was arrested on Saturday by the Sambrial police for allegedly desecrating the Holy Quran in Jatheki village the previous day.
Members of the Christian community had fled the village after Muslims took to the streets in protest against the alleged desecration.
Robert was sent to the Sialkot jail on a 14-day judicial remand by a local court on Monday. Jail authorities claimed that the accused had committed suicide by hanging himself, using the lace of his Shalwar to tie with the latch of his cell’s door.
The situation in Sialkot was tense till late in the evening as relatives of the dead man protested by placing his body on the Kashmir Road.
Demanding arrest of jail officials responsible for Roberts death, they attacked 13 shops and damaged some vehicles.
They dispersed after senior police officers assured them of justice. The Christian community has decided to observe a two-day mourning.
An inquiry committee said Robert had committed suicide, suspending three officials of the jail for negligence.
Lahore DIG Salim Shahid Beg told Dawn over telephone that the committee had inspected the accused’s body and questioned police officers. He said that they had also consulted senior doctors and leaders of the Christian community, and found that there was no mark of torture on the body. Leaders of the Christian community were satisfied with the findings, the DIG said.
The suspended officials included Assistant Superintendent Sibtain Raza, Head Warden Mohammad Yusuf and Warden Javed Iqbal Awan.
The DIG said the suspended officials would face an inquiry under the Punjab Employees Efficiency, Discipline and Accountability Act.
The Federal Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, said the government had ordered a probe into the death and promised that its findings would be made public.
In Sialkot, the district administration and police high-ups and leaders of Christian and Muslim communities were trying to keep people calm. Provincial Minister Michael Kamran was also part of the effort.
Christians believed that the accused had been tortured to death by jail officials, who had later hanged his body to give impression that he had committed suicide.
Roberts family claimed that there were torture marks on his body and his ribs were broken. His father, Riasat Masih, called for a judicial probe into the death and asserted that no one could commit suicide with a weak lace of shalwar.
Our Sialkot correspondent adds: The situation was tense not only in Sialkot but also in adjacent towns of Daska, Sambrial and Pasrur.
Scores of Christians took to the streets, blocking traffic and torching tyres. All shops and markets in Sialkot and Sambrial were closed.
Robert’s body would be kept in the Bethania Christian Hospital in Sialkot, and his last rites would be performed on Wednesday. The deceased would be buried in a cemetery in Sialkot instead of his native village because of security reasons.
The Sambrial police have registered a case against around 100 people for burning the local Catholic Church.