02/22/2006, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Sangla Hill Christian accused of blasphemy released

He was released on bail; the accusation had already been withdrawn last month. In November, his case led to the eruption of violence against churches and Christians' homes.

Sangla Hill (AsiaNews) – Yousaf Masih, a Christian detained on blasphemy charges, has been released. His alleged crime led to the eruption of violence against the Christian community in Sangla Hill in Pakistan. On 18 February, the Anti-Terrorism Court granted him release on bail. The Christian, who was released immediately, said he was happy and thanked all those who had supported him. News of his release was broken by a press release of the Peace and Justice Commission, a branch of Pakistan's Catholic Church involved in human rights.

Two days later, on 20 February, 65 out of 85 Muslims detained for the assault on churches in Sangla hill were also released on bail.

Last month, Mohammad Saleem Kalu, the man who had charged Yousaf Masih with blasphemy, withdrew the accusation and signed a document declaring the man's innocence. Saleem said he had accused the Christian on the basis of "mere suspicion".

It was the blasphemy charge against Masih, a semi-illiterate farm hand, which provoked a mob of around 2,000 Muslims who attacked, destroyed and set fire to three Christian churches, a convent, two Catholic schools and the homes of a Protestant pastor and a Catholic parish priest, as well as a hostel for girls and the homes of some Christians in Sangla Hill village.

On 2 December, leaders of some Islamic religious groups,  gathered for Friday prayer, heaped more condemnation of the Christian's head, and went so far as to call for his public hanging.

The so-called blasphemy law (article 295 b & c of the Pakistani penal code) carries life sentences for offences against the Koran and the death penalty or life imprisonment for defamatory actions against the prophet Muhammad.

The laws are often used to settle personal scores and get rid of one's enemies. The Catholic Church and minority communities have long been calling for a total repeal of the legislation, considered an "anomaly" in the country's justice system.

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