Stewart Bell | February 16, 2017 |
TORONTO — Rashid Ahmed answered the phone at his suburban home in Mississauga this week, which would not be unusual except for the fact that he is being investigated by Pakistani police over a deadly sectarian clash two months ago.
“Luckily I escaped,” he said in an interview during which he acknowledged that Pakistani police had named him “as a terrorist” over the Dec. 12 incident at a mosque in Pakistan’s Chakwal district.
Ahmed said he had returned to Canada before he could be arrested. “That’s how I am safe here, thank God. It’s all work of God, I believe, because had I been caught it would have been not good for my health at all.”
After a mob estimated at between 1,000 and 3,000 stormed the mosque belonging to the minority Ahmadiyya sect in Dulmial, leaving two dead and a half-dozen wounded, Pakistani news agencies identified Ahmed as the key figure behind the attack.
They have claimed that we attacked. It was not an attack. It was an agitation. They attacked us
He denied that, and told the National Post a different version of events, saying a peaceful procession had entered the mosque after being taunted, pelted with stones and shot at. “They have claimed that we attacked. It was not an attack. It was an agitation. They attacked us,” he said. “The rest of what happened was a natural reaction.”
But leaders of Canada’s Ahmadiyya Muslim community said they were unsettled by Ahmed’s return to Ontario and the apparent lack of a Canadian investigation. Safwan Choudhry, a spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at, said someone who had taken part in religious persecution in another country “should not have safe haven in Canada.”
In a Twitter post following the incident, the Canadian High Commission in Islamabad commended the government of Punjab “for undertaking to hold mob leaders in Chakwal to account.” But it is unclear what, if anything, Canadian authorities are doing themselves.
Upon his return to Toronto’s Pearson airport, Ahmed was questioned “and they were satisfied and said that I can go,” he told the Post. “And then CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service) came and asked me questions and they said, ‘Okay, no problem.’”
Global Affairs Canada referred questions to the RCMP, which declined to comment, as did Peel Regional Police. The High Commission of Pakistan in Ottawa said it was “premature to fix the responsibility” until the police investigation was complete.
“Rest assured, we have rule of law in Pakistan and all those individuals who are responsible for the incident will be taken to task with the due process of law,” said Nadeem Kiani, the press secretary.
The incident is rooted in the persecution of Ahmadiyya Muslims, who are prohibited by Pakistani law from identifying as Muslims and, like Shiias and Christians, are subjected to attacks.
According to Ahmed, the mosque in Dulmial village, about 150 kilometres south of Islamabad, was built in the 1800s and “occupied” by Ahmadiyyas in 1996. A court dispute over ownership of the mosque remains unresolved, he said.
Last December, Ahmed said he was in the village as it was preparing for a procession marking the birthday of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. “I was not the organizer of this procession,” he said.
He said the procession route was to pass by the Ahmadiyya mosque and there was talk of a protest. As “a high-profile person in good books” because of his community work, the locals consulted him and he suggested they write to the authorities.
The resulting petition, signed by 580 villagers, spoke of “extreme measures” unless police took action to remove the Ahmadiyyas from the mosque. Ahmed’s signature was among the first on the petition.
The Ahmadiyya community, meanwhile, wrote to the district authorities on Dec. 5 to ask for additional security, warning that locals had “incited to violence” and talked about taking “forcible possession” of the mosque.
Prior to the procession, Ahmed said, an announcement on the village loudspeaker system told people not to bring weapons. Once the group had reached the mosque, they asked police to seal the building and remove the Ahmadiyyas.
But police would not do so. “There was some frustration at the time and also quite a few people from close-by communities started coming because they learned about the incident,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed claimed the Ahmadiyyas taunted the protestors, who began to scale the walls. He said three were injured by gunfire from inside the mosque and one protester was pulled in while he was climbing and later died of a gunshot wound.
“I mean what do you expect from a large crowd? They will sit tight and get shot at and stones throwed at them and wrong type of words used against them? There are elements, they will do something and they did it. Some of them who are youngsters tried to climb the wall. But none of the Ahmadis got hurt at all, not even a scratch.”
I mean what do you expect from a large crowd? They will sit tight and get shot at?
However, one of the dead was reportedly an Ahmadiyya who suffered a heart attack inside the mosque. The Canadian Ahmadiyya group said the man had family in the Toronto area. The dead protester was identified by the Nation newspaper as Nahmeed Shafique, 28.
The protesters eventually forced their way into the mosque, where they prayed, said Ahmed, who said he had negotiated with the authorities to bring it to an end. He claimed the fires seen on videos of the incident were set by Ahmadiyyas, who torched their documents and furniture before fleeing.
“That’s nonsense,” said Choudhry, adding video footage showed otherwise. In the videos, protesters can be seen looting the mosque and throwing the contents into piles, which are later seen in flames.
Fearing he would be arrested, Ahmed said he had phoned the Canadian high commission to say “that this incident has happened and … I need your help.” But it was a Friday and the mission was closed, and he stopped using his phone.
Because of a heart condition, he said he had been told he needed an angiogram. “So I thought before I do that there, they will arrest me from the hospital and I may not get my treatment done which could cause death so I should leave. This is what I was suggested, so immediately I was able to buy a ticket and come out. I was lucky.” Upon returning to Canada he had bypass surgery, he said.
A Joint Investigation Team submitted a charge sheet against 61 suspects, according to a report in the Dawn newspaper, which named Ahmed as the “main suspect” and said he had fled before authorities could put his name on an exit control list.
Ahmed said he was among those Pakistani police had “unfairly” named. He said that in addition to “terrorism,” police had accused him of 10 to 12 more minor crimes but he believed the judge appointed to the case would drop charges against everyone, except against those suspected of killings and property damage.
“This is an incident where the government is trying to protect the minorities and working against the majority. That’s why we all are punished,” said Ahmed, who said he had lived in Canada for over 40 years.
Why are they occupying a mosque which is built for Muslims by Muslims?
Dawn reported the Senate Committee on Human Rights had recommended the government take up Ahmed’s case with Canadian officials and seek his extradition. But Canada does not have an extradition treaty with Pakistan.
Asked why the Ahmadiyyas could not have been left to worship at their mosque, Ahmed said that under Pakistani law Ahmadiyyas were not allowed to have mosques. “They should not have anything to do with mosques and they cannot be called Muslims,” he said.
He said Ahmadiyyas were free to worship but not in a mosque. “They could have used a home or build one place, no problem. But why are they occupying a mosque which is built for Muslims by Muslims? This is aggression.”
Choudhry said Canadian Ahmadiyyas were concerned that the persecution they fled was following them to Canada. The website of an organization affiliated with a Mississauga mosque Ahmed has attended calls the Ahmadiyya faith “evil” and an attempt “by anti-Islam forces to disunite Muslims.”
Choudhry said he hoped for a “measured response” from Canadian authorities, which could include taking action against those who “bring values that are both un-Canadian and dangerous to those living in Canada.”
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