New York, July 18 — A judge in the northern city of Abbottabad today ordered the release on bail of four journalists from the Urdu-language daily Mohasib who had been imprisoned under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws.
The journalists, who had been jailed for about six weeks, were released after vigorous protests by local and international press freedom groups, including CPJ.
The blasphemy charges have not been dropped, however. As of today, it was not clear whether a trial date had been set.
See below for additional background on this case.
Mohasib — Censored, June 3, 2001
Mohammed Shahid Chaudhry, Mohasib –Imprisoned, June 3, 2001
Raja Mohammed Haroon, Mohasib — Imprisoned, June 3, 2001
Shakil Ahmed Tahirkheli, Mohasib — Imprisoned, June 4, 2001
Mohammed Zaman Khan, Mohasib — Imprisoned, June 8, 2001
Jamil Yousaf, free-lancer — Legal action, June 3, 2001
On June 3, police in Abbottabad registered a case against journalists at the Urdu-language daily Mohasib, charging them with blasphemy.
The charges arose from an article entitled “The Beard and Islam,” which appeared in the May 29 edition of the newspaper. The article, written by the well-known poet and author Jamil Yousaf, contested the view of certain Muslim clerics that a beardless man cannot be a good Muslim. The piece also criticized the exploitation of religious faith for personal gain.
After local religious leaders protested against Yousaf’s article, police went to the office of Mohasib on the afternoon of June 3, and began questioning Chaudhry, the newspaper’s managing editor, and Haroon, a sub-editor. The two men were taken into police custody on the pretext that they would be safe from the threats posed by religious extremists, according to a CPJ source.
When Chaudhry and Haroon said they would prefer to meet with religious leaders to explain their position, police said such a meeting could be held at the police station.
At around eight p.m., a group of religious leaders arrived at the Cantonment Police Station, where the journalists were being held. However, instead of resolving the dispute, one of the men filed a First Information Report with police, accusing Yousaf and the Mohasib journalists of committing blasphemy. That night, police sealed the offices of Mohasib.
Chaudhry and Haroon were detained overnight at the police station. The next morning, June 4, police arrested Mohasib news editor Tahirkheli at his home. All three journalists were remanded to police custody for two days, and then transferred to Abbottabad District Jail.
Mohasib editor Zaman Khan was arrested on the night of June 8, despite having obtained preemptive bail from a judge in the neighboring district of Haripur.
Police also issued an arrest warrant for Yousaf, who went into hiding.
On June 14, CPJ sent a letter to Chief Executive Pervez Musharraf (he declared himself president on June 20), calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all four journalists.
As international pressure mounted to free the journalists, federal and provincial authorities took action. The Federal Ministry of Religious Affairs and the North West Frontier Province Law Department each issued statements clarifying that the Mohasib article contained nothing that could be considered blasphemous.
In early July, following the provincial law department’s review of the case, the inspector general of police in North West Frontier Province sent a notice to the senior superintendent of police in Abbottabad, urging local authorities to drop the case registered against Mohasib and to release the jailed editors.
However, Abbottabad officials refused to drop the case, citing pressure from religious groups. On July 18, a Sessions Court judge in Abbottabad ordered the release of the journalists on bail.