ISLAMABAD: Police have turned up the heat on controversial Lal Masjid supremo Abdul Aziz, issuing warrants for his arrest on Friday, following the registration of an FIR against the firebrand cleric for threatening civil society members who had protested against his refusal to condemn the Peshawar tragedy.
Police officers Dawn spoke to on Friday said that the government had already ordered the police to detain those who were included in the 4th Schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act due to the tense situation, which had developed in the aftermath of the Army Public School massacre.
However, police officers said they were finding it hard to implement the orders in the case of Abdul Aziz, and feared that his detention under the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) may create a law and order situation. The cleric has already threatened to launch a countrywide protest if he is arrested, a claim he made during a Friday sermon delivered last week.
The case against the cleric filed on December 19 was registered in response to a complaint lodged by Syed Naeem Athar Bukhari, Mohammad Jibran Nasir, Farzana Bari, Shaan Taseer and others. The FIR, registered under Section 506(ii) of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) – which deals with criminal intimidation – is a non-bailable offence.
On Friday, Aabpara police officials appeared before Civil Court Judge Saqib Jawad and requested arrest warrants for Abdul Aziz since he was not joining the investigation in the case. Subsequently, the judge issued the warrants, and officials say that they are committed to executing the orders and arresting the cleric.
However, if the cleric voluntarily becomes part of the investigation, police cannot execute the arrest, officials said, adding that even in that case, he would be bound to prove his innocence and was liable to arrest if he failed to do that.
A senior police officer told Dawn on condition of anonymity that after police obtained the arrest warrants, they approached Abdul Aziz, who acceded to their request to join the investigation. However, the officer said that Aziz had denied the allegations levelled against him, insisting that he was not physically present at the Lal Masjid on the day the complainants claimed they were threatened. In these circumstances, investigators are likely to give Abdul Aziz time to appear before them and join the probe, he said, but quickly added that he would not be given more than a day or two.
However, the officer refused to answer when Dawn asked whether the cleric was currently at his residence. Other officials, however, claimed that Mr Aziz had moved out of his residence in Sector G-6 and was currently living elsewhere, ostensibly to delay his possible arrest.
Despite repeated attempts to contact him, Abdul Aziz was not available for comment. When contacted, Lal Masjid spokesperson Ehtesham Ahmed asked Dawn to speak to Abdul Qadir, who he claimed was the spokesperson for Abdul Aziz. Mr Qadir said: “We had boycotted the media and we have no idea where the press has been getting its information.” He also insisted that the cleric would not join the investigation or turn himself in.
Mr Qadir also denied reports that the Lal Masjid cleric met or spoke to police officials over the phone, regarding the case registered against him. When asked whether he had moved out of his G-6 residence, the spokesman said: “He is safe wherever he is.”
Getting away scot-free?
Tensions between the Lal Masjid management and the government began in early 2001, when Mr Aziz and his brother Abdul Rasheed, who was killed during Operation Silence in 2007, began delivering aggressive sermons, critical of the Musharraf regime.
The first case against them was registered on September 28, 2001. Between 2001 and 2005, police registered 10 cases against the two clerics, including five under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA).
Between January and July 2007, police registered a total of 22 cases against Mr Aziz and his associates for various crimes, including the abduction of Aunty Shamim and her daughter, the abduction of police officials, the seizure of official vehicles, running an FM radio station without proper government, burning CDs, sabotaging and damaging government property and, most seriously, killing a Rangers official.
However, the fact that Mr Aziz is now a free man has a lot to do with the way each case was prosecuted. In a number of cases, witnesses either changed their testimony or never appeared in court. Islamabad police were also accused of poorly investigating the allegations against the cleric, due to which most cases against him were thrown out for lack of evidence.
In the Rangers murder case, government officials who had earlier recorded statements against the cleric backtracked when they appeared in front of the ATC. During investigations, they accused Mr Aziz and others of giving the order to fire at security forces and damaging government property, but later changed their tune.
Similarly, Bhara Kahu shopkeepers, who had originally lodged the complaint when the cleric’s followers burnt CDs of Hollywood and Bollywood films, also changed their statements. In court, the shopkeepers said that they had offered to burn the CDs themselves. A case regarding the kidnapping of four police officials in 2007, however, remained pending and was only initially heard in 2011, but even then police did not produce any witnesses against the accused.