11/02/2021, 14.37
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Sialkot: Blasphemy accused Christian held in pre-trial detention for two years

by Shafique Khokhar

Stephen Masih, who is mentally disabled, has been deemed unfit to stand trial by the Punjab Institute of Mental Health. He was arrested in March 2019 after an argument with his neighbour.

Sialkot (AsiaNews) - Human rights activists in Pakistan have called on the government to release Stephen Masih, a Christian from Sialkot district who has been detained for over two years awaiting trial for blasphemy.

Masih, who is mentally disabled, has been deemed unfit to stand trial by the Punjab Institute of Mental Health. According to the Jubilee Campaign, 42 court hearings have been held so far and in no case has any evidence emerged against Masih.

The Christian had been arrested in March 2019 after an argument with a neighbour in which he used abusive language. The next day, the woman's husband, a Muslim cleric named Hafiz Muhammad Mudassar, gathered a mob who violently attacked Masih and his family after accusing him of blasphemy. The Punjab police, instead of arresting the attackers, drew up a first information report against Masih for blasphemy.

Voice of Justice, a humanitarian organisation that campaigns for the Christian man's release, said there were serious concerns about his life in prison. People accused of blasphemy are usually kept apart because they run the risk of being killed, and Masih was not provided with adequate medical care.

"Stephen Masih has long suffered from a mental health condition that prevents him from understanding and thinking properly, and for this alone he should be acquitted," said Joseph Jansen, founder of Voice for Justice. "In addition, life in prison for a Christian is more difficult: we know that Muslims harass and abuse him".

His sister Alia claimed that Masih had used offensive language during the argument with his neighbours, but had not done anything blasphemous, and urged the authorities to release him.

According to activist Ashiknaz Khokhar, there have been at least 78 extrajudicial killings in recent times after accusations of blasphemy and apostasy. Most of them were Muslims (42) and Christians (23).  In July last year, the Punjab Assembly had passed a resolution asking the federal government to improve the existing ones to handle blasphemy cases more strictly.

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