Lahore (Agenzia Fides) - Pakistani Christian Sawan Masih, who was falsely accused of blasphemy in 2013, was acquitted yesterday, 6 October 2020, by the Lahore Court of Appeal. After seven years in prison and a first-degree sentence, the court recognized that Sawan had been falsely implicated with illegal intentions by mafia groups linked to "land grabbing" and acquitted him of all charges and also ordered Masih to be released from custody.
The defense attorney underlined the fact that there was a thirty-four hour delay between the alleged crime of blasphemy and complaint presented to the police: this element confirms the thesis of a planned allegation to accuse the man on the basis of the blasphemy law. In addition, witnesses who confirmed allegations of blasphemy had made contradicting statements. Due to these elements, the judge now overturned the first instance sentence.
Sawan Masih was charged with blasphemy in March 2013. Thereafter, more than 178 houses in the Christian neighborhood of Joseph Colony in Lahore were burned down by an angry Muslim crowd. In 2014 a death sentence was finally imposed for blasphemy (see Fides, 4/4/2014), while none of the Muslims have yet been punished for the devastation in the Christian neighborhood. The man had been on death row in Faisalabad prison since April 2014, but, according to Christian Joseph Francis, chairman of the NGO CLAAS (Center for Legal Aid Assistance & Settlement), "remained confident and believed in his release". "We are extremely proud and happy that today, after eight years of tireless commitment, justice has been done to an innocent man. We continue to work for all Christians who are wrongly accused and victims of a law that should be changed to avoid abuse". Masih said he prayed "for the judges" every day in prison, so that God would give them courage and that they could apply true justice in their decisions.
Dominican Father James Channan, Director of the "Peace Center" in Lahore emphasizes: "Christians, Hindus and other minority groups in Pakistan face discrimination and injustice, often caused by the abuse of blasphemy laws to attack innocent Christian communities. Thanks to good relations with Muslim leaders such as Abdul Khabir Azad, the Imam of the Royal Mosque in Lahore, worked together to peacefully overcome tense situations such as the attack on the Christian neighborhood “Joseph Colony” in the heart of Lahore in March 2013. We are grateful to the court for acquitting Masih and acknowledging his innocence. Now it is necessary to do justice to the families who have lost their homes and property in the assault caused by false charges of blasphemy against Sawan Masih".
There are currently at least 80 people in prison in Pakistan accused of "blasphemy", and at least half of them face life imprisonment or death penalty. The people accused under the law are mainly Muslims, in a country where 98% of the population follows Islam but, as Christian activists of the "Justice and Peace" Commission of the Pakistani Catholic Bishops note, "the law targets members of religious minorities such as Christians and Hindus".
The case of extrajudicial executions should not be underestimated, given that radical leaders urge militants to "take justice for themselves", killing people found guilty of blasphemy, even if they are not convicted in court or are falsely accused. According to the NGO "Center for Social Justice", founded and led by the Pakistani Catholic Peter Jacob, since 1990, at least 77 people have been killed in extrajudicial executions, in relation to accusations of blasphemy: among those killed are people accused of blasphemy, their family members, lawyers and judges who acquitted the accused of the crime. (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 7/10/2020)