10/07/2020, 14.15
PAKISTAN
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Accused of blasphemy, Sawan Masih is free in Lahore after six years on death row

by Shafique Khokhar

The 38-year-old Christian was sentenced to death in 2014. A Muslim friend accused him of insulting the Prophet Mohammed as part of an attempt to drive out Christians and take over their land. Activist tells AsiaNews that blasphemy laws are used for vendettas or to settle personal disputes.

Lahore (AsiaNews) – After spending six years on death row, the Lahore High Court (Punjab) acquitted Sawan Masih, a 38-year-old Christian health worker, of blasphemy charges, which carry the death penalty.

The verdict “validates the studies that show that blasphemy laws are misused to settle personal scores and land disputes,” said human rights activist Suneel Malik speaking to AsiaNews.

On the basis of fabricated charges, Sawan Masih spent “over seven years in prison even though he did not commit any offence.”

Sawan Masih is married to Sobia and has three children: Noor (16), Saim (14) and Rebeca (12). On 8 March 2013, he was convicted of insulting the Prophet Muhammad during a conversation with a Muslim friend.

According to the accuser, Shahid Imran, Sawan allegedly said that "Jesus is genuine", that he was the "son of Allah”, and that he would “return, while your prophet is false. My Jesus is true and will give salvation.”

The case triggered a violent anti-Christian campaign by Islamic extremist groups, with false accusations levelled against Christians pouring out of the loudspeakers of local mosques.

As a result, an angry mob of more than 3,000 people attacked Joseph Colony, a predominantly Christian enclave in Lahore, resulting in the destruction or torching of about 150 houses, 75 businesses and two churches, including Sawan Masih’s own home,

For the High Court, Sawan Masih did not commit blasphemy; indeed, his accuser Shahid Imran could end up in jail for slander. A wealthy local businessman was behind the complaint in order to drive Christians out of Joseph Colony, which he wanted for industrial use.

The 38-year-old Christian held fast to his innocence but he was sentenced to death on 27 March 2014 under Article 295 C of the Pakistani Penal Code.

Three years later, in 2017, an anti-terrorism court acquitted more than 100 Muslims suspected of involvement in the attack against the Christian colony.

Rev Javed Bashir, of the Voice of Christ Pentecostal Church in Karachi, noted that in Pakistan false accusations of blasphemy are often motivated by personal vendettas or religious hatred.

The blasphemy laws are often used to settle personal disputes. However, the recent ruling by the Lahore Court restores justice for the defendant and honour to the country's judiciary.

From the false charges to the attack on the Joseph Colony, the 38-year-old Christian man “had to pay a heavy price for a crime that never happened,” said Suneel Malik

For this reason, it is "imperative for the government to prosecute and punish the complainant and witnesses for perjury and false accusations.” These offences carry sentences ranging from six months to seven years.

Activist Shazia George notes that judges come under pressure from "by religious groups" to convict people in blasphemy cases.

"Data show that more than 80 people, including judges, lawyers and political leaders, were extra judicially killed for their support for the accused in blasphemy cases or for expressing their opposition to the blasphemy laws,” she explained.

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