In a rare decision by a local court, Barkat Masih, a 56-year-old Christian accused of blasphemy was acquitted on Monday, Pakistan Today has learnt.
According to details, Masih, a Christian convert from Hinduism, had been accused of blasphemy in his hometown Khairpur in 2011.
A sweeper by profession, he had been accused of blasphemy when he refused to hand over duplicate keys of a shrine where he used to work to Muhammad Saleem and Muhammad Shoaib. They threatened him of “dire consequences” and on October 1, 2011 filed an FIR against Masih under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code.
Consequently, Masih was arrested and taken to Bahawalpur Central Jail where he was under trial for blasphemy over the last one year. Blasphemy in Pakistan is punishable by death.
Masih was acquitted by Additional Sessions Judge Chaudhry Jamil Ahmad on Monday.
Talking to Pakistan Today, Masih’s counsel Lazar Allah Rakha said, “Today, a great justice has been served. Masih was innocent and everyone knew. An innocent man was saved from a terrible fate.”
Lazar said, “There was a lot of pressure from the opposing counsel Javed Pirzada and his associates about this case. He kept threatening me for supporting a man who had committed blasphemy.”
Furthermore, he said that no security had been provided to him and Masih during the trial, adding that on the day the judgment was due, the court had been completely barricaded and no one was allowed in or outside the court without proper checking.
Moreover, he said that while he had so far faced no threats from Muslim mobs, he had been under a lot of pressure from the local lawyers community which had been vocal against him for defending Masih’s case.
He further said that Masih was still in prison and was due to be released today (Tuesday).
Talking to Pakistan Today, World Vision in Progress Director Farrukh Harrison said, “I am very grateful to the police for their support. Everyone knew that Masih was innocent and findings by the police also played a very strong role in his acquittal.” Harrison’s Christian rights outfit was providing legal support to the accused.
Commenting on the security implications for Masih after his release, Harrison said, “The courts can only provide justice, they cannot guarantee security. The police can only ensure safety of the citizens for so long. Masih and his family will have to relocate and start over afresh because his life is under threat at his current hometown.”
Napolean Qayyum of the Pakistan People’s Party Minorities Wing told Pakistan Today that the ruling was a rare one indeed. “This case again warrants a review of the application of the blasphemy laws which are misused by people to settle personal scores and vendettas. Even though minorities are suffering because of the laws’ misuse, many Muslims are also languishing in jails on false blasphemy charges,” he said.
Qayyum said that the case of Rimsha Masih, a 14-year-old Christian girl from Islamabad, was also an eye-opener of the blatant misuse of the blasphemy laws. “However, it is encouraging that the courts have now found the courage to analyze such cases on merit,” he added.
Talking to Pakistan Today, peace and human-rights advocate, IA Rehman said, “This is a clear example of how the blasphemy laws are misused to settle personal scores and economic disputes. It is now the responsibility of the state to ensure that the man lives safely with his family without any more persecution.”
Furthermore, he said that it was not just the responsibility of the state but also the society to take corrective measures to ensure the safety and security of Pakistan’s minorities.
Masih’s acquittal is a unique case in Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws.
Currently, Aasia Bibi, a woman from Nankana Sahib, is on death row after she was found guilty of blasphemy. Many human rights activists, notable politicians and local and international NGOs have been demanding the law to be revoked.
According to a recent survey, at least 647 people had been charged with blasphemy over the last two decades. Fifty percent of the people charged were non-Muslim. Twenty of those charged were murdered soon after the charge was laid.