Lahore (AsiaNews) - The High Court of Lahore has cleared the Catholics James Masih and Buta Masih of blasphemy charges, declaring them "not guilty." Khalil Tahir, their defense attorney and a member of the Punjab parliament, tells AsiaNews that the release of the two elderly Christians after two and a half years in prison is an "enormous victory," a "blessing of Jesus Christ," and "great news for their families."
The incident involving James and Buta - who were 70 and 65 years old at the time of the events, and originally from Faisalabad - dates back to October of 2006: they were accused by a neighbor, Arshad Mubarak, of burning a copy of the Qur'an in the street. Witnesses at the trial said that Judge Muhammad Islam's decision to sentence the two Christians was made solely out of fear of extremists, since no proof of their guilt was presented. Khalil Tahir, who is also president of the Adal Trust - an NGO that offers free legal assistance - has announced that "both will be released from prison within four to six days after the completion of formalities."
According to the reconstruction of events provided by Fr. Yaqub Yousaf, the parish priest in the area, the incident was prompted by the lack of education and extreme poverty of the two Christian faithful. Nargis, James's daughter, worked as a maid for a Muslim family, and would bring home objects that had been discarded by her employer, including plastic bottles, old books, and pieces of paper. Some of this was resold at the local market, some of it kept by the family, and the rest burned in the street by her father. The man, who is illiterate, is believed not to have noticed that the objects he was burning included a copy of the Qur'an, something he never expected to find amid the "trash" from his daughter's employer. After their arrest, James and Buta Masih were sentenced to ten years in prison and a fine of 25,000 rupees each (about 227 euros).
"We are thankful to Jesus that he helped the innocent and Lahore High Court has acquitted them, so we are very happy at this judgment," Fr. Yaqub says. "But at the same time we cannot forget the sufferings of James and Buta and their poor families. They spent more than two years in prison without doing anything wrong." He calls for the repeal of the blasphemy law in Pakistan, a "killer law" as he calls it, because "it creates hatred and prejudice" among the faithful of different religions.
According to the national Justice and Peace Commission, from 1986 until today at least 892 people have been accused of blasphemy, according to section 295 B of the Pakistani criminal code. So far the state has not applied the death penalty in any blasphemy cases.