A Chinese engineer working on a dam project in northern Pakistan has been arrested and imprisoned on accusations of blasphemy, in a rare case of a foreigner being swept up in Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy statutes.
The Chinese national was identified as “Mr Tian” and described as a transportation supervisor at the Dasu hydropower project, led by China’s Gezhouba Group construction and engineering company.
The FIR [First Information Report] registered by the Kamila police station in Upper Kohistan district on Monday stated that Tian was on a field visit along with a team of Pakistani workers over the weekend when he was accused of making blasphemous remarks and gestures against God and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) after afternoon prayers during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Under Pakistani law, a conviction on those accusations could bring the death penalty.
On Monday, an anti-terrorism court in Abbottabad sent the Chinese national to prison on a 14-day judicial remand.
According to details, Tian had allegedly complained to workers at the dam that “precious time” was being lost due to prayer breaks. This enraged some of the workers and they fanned out to nearby villages, whipping up emotions.
A large frenzied crowd then made its way towards Kamila Bazaar and blocked the Karakoram Highway (KKH), threatening to storm the Dasu Hydropower Project (DHP) site if the Chinese engineer was not arrested.
A group of elders tried to pacify the crowd, advising them to give the police some time to handle the “delicate matter”.
The FIR quoted some workers and their interpreters as saying that Tian had uttered “sacrilegious remarks” when they sought a break to offer prayers.
“The labourers said they were fasting but denied that work had slowed down, which led to an exchange of heated words” with the supervisor, a police official said on condition of anonymity.
“Later, the labourers accused the engineer of making blasphemous remarks” and about 400 locals gathered to protest, he said.
According to the FIR, police were informed on Sunday night about a mob trying to force their way into a Chinese camp near Barseen. A police party rushed to the place, cordoned off the area and shifted the suspect to Kamila police station.
As word about the episode spread, labourers at the Dasu dam site stopped their work.
Meanwhile, in a bid to defuse the situation, a team of Islamic clerics from nearby towns and villages set up a committee to examine the situation.
The participants called upon the protesters not to take the law into their hands as police and the district administration were “handling the matter admirably”.
Anwarul Haq, general manager at the project, said the situation on the ground was normal, but the protest had led to a suspension of work.
POLICE STATION ATTACKED
A local administration official in Dasu, approximately 180km (110 miles) north of Islamabad, said army and paramilitary troops were deployed “to ensure the safety of the engineers”.
Police official Naseer-ud-Din Khan said a crowd attacked the police station as officers were preparing the prosecution paperwork on Monday.
“The mob dispersed only after they were shown a copy of the case registered on blasphemy charges,” he said.
Attempts to get in touch with the Chinese side to obtain their version were unsuccessful.
The Dasu dam construction contract was awarded to the China Gezhouba Group Company in 2017, and the project is shrouded by tight security.
It is among a number of Chinese firms that have taken on lucrative infrastructure contracts in Pakistan despite the security threats to Chinese nationals.
Blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan, though no executions have ever been carried out for the crime.
In December 2021, a Sri Lankan factory manager was beaten to death and set ablaze by a mob that accused him of blasphemy in the city of Sialkot in eastern Pakistan.
Rights groups say hundreds of people are languishing in prison accused of blasphemy as judges delay trials, fearing retribution against themselves.