11/13/2020, 11.47
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Faisalabad, Christian in prison on (false) blasphemy charges given bail

by Shafique Khokhar

After 11 months Shahbaz Masih is granted bail. He was jailed with his Muslim friend Muhammad Ishaq. The story dates back to last December; calls for their death issued by a mosque. Legal assistance from Human Rights Focus Pakistan was fundamental. The president renews his call to amend the blasphemy laws.

Faisalabad (AsiaNews) - On November 10, the criminal section of the court in Faisalabad, Punjab, granted freedom on bail to the Christian Shahbaz Masih and his Muslim friend Muhammad Ishaq, arrested for an (alleged) case of blasphemy.

The story dates back to December last year, when the two were jailed in the context of a highly controversial case, like many others involving people indicted for offending Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. However, in this case, the intervention of numerous activists and human rights associations made it possible to dismantle the accusatory framework against the two and guarantee their release.

Shahabaz Masih and Muhammad Ishaq were jailed on charges of blasphemy, under section 295-B of the Pakistani Penal Code for "offending the Prophet Mohammed". On December 27, 2019, Shahbaz was surrounded by a mob in a city market, dragged to a nearby landfill used by children to collect paper, and brutally beaten. Attracted by his friend's screams, Muhammad ran to his aid but was taken by the crowd who accused him, along with the Christian, of blasphemy for burning pages of the Koran.

Arriving at the scene, the police believed the mobs claims and lead the two men, both in their forties, to the barracks. Meanwhile, the crowd went to a nearby mosque and, through loudspeakers, invited the Muslim community to gather and kill the two accused.

In January, AsiaNews reporters visited Shahbaz Masih's home and met with relatives, to express their solidarity and closeness to the terrible story. It was clear that the family is very poor and was struggling to find the money to make it to the end of the month. Shahbaz was the only worker, who lived with his father in a rented house.

At the time, none of his relatives were pleading the young man's case in court and trying to obtain an acquittal, showing the groundlessness of the accusations. Partly due to a lack of resources, partly out of fear of retaliation, as often happens in cases of blasphemy. Hence the intervention of a local NGO, Human Rights Focus Pakistan (HRFP), which decided to take charge of the legal protection of man and appeared in court from the first hearing.

It should be emphasized that the Muslim friend, Muhammad Ishaq, was released on bail well before Christian Shahbza, also here confirming the unequal treatment between the faithful of the two religions in Pakistan. Now the 40-year-old Christian is in a safe place being kept secret for fear of further reprisals.

Speaking by phone to AsiaNews, Naveed Walter, president of HRFP, underlines with satisfaction the decision of the judges to accept the request for release on bail, "sincerely" admiring the courage shown. Although it took 11 months, he continues, the court decided on his release "giving us renewed courage in supporting other innocent victims" for "false accusations of blasphemy". The affair "is still in the courts", he clarifies, "but we are confident and the day will come when the court will acquit him of any false accusation, declaring him innocent".

The case of the two young people, continues Naveed Walter, is further proof that "the accusations of blasphemy are based only on personal differences and conflicts" and "the challenge remains unchanged even after their release from prison".

The search for a safe place, protection, secret identities, the impossibility of returning to live in the place where one was born or where the fact occurred, appearing in the courtroom for hearings, difficulties in finding work and threats to the family are just some of the aspects of the future life of the accused. "There is an ever more urgent need - he concludes - to amend this law and if someone unjustly accuses someone else of blasphemy, they too must be kept behind bars” until it is proven.

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