Pakistani Christians accused of blasphemy released on bail

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

Pakistan's Supreme Court has granted bail to three Christians accused of blasphemy.

The accused include Raja Warris, a lay leader in the Anglican Church of Pakistan, who was arrested on 5 January 2021 and charged under Sections 295-A and 298-A of the Pakistan Penal Code over a Facebook post on 22 Dec 2020.

Section 298-A carries a prison sentence of up to three years for derogatory remarks about a "holy personage". Under Section 295-A, people can be jailed for up to 10 years in prison for "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outreach religious feelings".

Patris Masih was 18 when he was accused of blasphemy in 2018 after allegedly posting a photo insulting the Prophet Muhammad on Facebook.

The accusation led to violent protests by religious leaders and forced hundreds of Christian families to flee the area of Shahdara Town, in Lahore.

Judge Ejaz Ul Ahsan stated that the picture was "not blasphemous" and that it was therefore unjustified to register a case under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, a section of law that makes defiling the name of the Prophet Muhammad punishable by death.

The judge further concluded that the picture was not uploaded to Facebook by Masih's mobile phone but by someone else's.

As Masih has already spent the last four years behind bars, Judge Ul Ahsan determined that there was no need for him to remain in prison until the case is concluded.

His legal counsel, Sittar Sahil, said he was "grateful" to the judge for releasing Masih on bail after examining the evidence against his client.

"It depends on how you file a case. When you have all the evidence, the court will surely do justice," said Sahil.

In a separate case, Christian sanitary worker Salamat Mansha Masih was granted bail on Monday.

According to Kross Konnection, it is the first time that bail has been granted to someone charged under all three sections of the Pakistan Penal Code pertaining to blasphemy.

Mansha Masih, 27, was arrested in the Model Town Park, Lahore, on 13 February 2021 after he and another Christian were overheard reading the Bible.

They were accused by local college students of ridiculing Islam and the Prophet Muahammad while preaching about Christianity. They also alleged that they were given a book in Urdu that contained blasphemous text.

Mansha Masih's legal counsel, Abdul Hameed Khan Rana, told the court that it was a Christian book and not blasphemous, and that the First Information Report filed with the police falsely identified his client as a preacher.

Kross Konnection reports that during proceedings, the judge said that Pakistan "should avoid further polarisation of the society which already stands fractured and divided in the name of religion".

The granting of bail in all three cases was welcomed by Nasir Saeed, Director of CLAAS-UK, which provides legal assistance to persecuted Christians in Pakistan.

"Most of the time, lower courts avoid granting bail or deciding on blasphemy cases, which means that these cases take much longer and victims of the blasphemy laws often have to suffer many years in prison," he said.

"We commend the Supreme Court for examining the cases in detail and seeing fit to release the accused."

He called for reform of the blasphemy laws to prevent further misuse.

"Unfortunately, Pakistan's blasphemy laws continue to be misused and while we are celebrating the release of three Christian men on bail, it is important to note that this happened just a day before a Hindu sanitation worker, Ashok Kumar, was arrested in a false blasphemy case after allegedly desecrating the Koran, so we can see that so long as these laws are still in place, more religious minorities will fall victim and suffer needlessly," he said.

He added, "Blasphemy continues to be a very sensitive issue in Pakistan, where the Muslim majority often take the law into their own hands. We saw this last December when a Sri Lankan factory manager was beaten to death and set on fire by a mob in Pakistan over blasphemy allegations.

"While we welcome the granting of bail for three Christian victims this week, the Pakistan government must take steps to repeal or sufficiently reform the blasphemy laws to bring an end to the suffering of religious minorities who live in constant fear of a false accusation."