By Jawad Mazhar, Worthy News Special Correspondent reporting From Pakistan
LAHORE, PAKISTAN (Worthy News)-- A court has released a Christian man and his teenage daughter who were imprisoned in Pakistan's Punjab province for over a year on what they called "trumped up" charges of blasphemy.
Gulsher Masih and his 19-year-old daughter Ashyana Gulsher, also known as Sandal, said they were "acquitted and freed" from the notorious central jail in the city of Faisalabad Monday, December 14.
They told Worthy News they were held in difficult circumstances and "thrashed by Muslim inmates" for nearly 14 months since their arrest in October last year for allegedly desecrating the Koran, viewed as a holy book by Muslims. Both Christians denied they committed blasphemy.
Their release and acquittal followed efforts by Christian lawyer Khalil Tahir Sindhu, a legislator and member of Punjab's provincial assembly. Sindhu told Worthy News and its partner agency BosNewsLife that the case against the two Christians was "baseless".
He said Masih and his daughter were charged under Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code after angry crowds wrongly accused them of burning pages of the Koran while other family members allegedly folded them into airplanes.
Ashyana Gulsher claimed she found some burned pages of the Koran in a garbage dump outside their community of Chak No. 57 in Faisalabad. She said she handed them to a woman, Lubana Taj, telling her "These are the holy page of your Kuran and I found them in the garbage..."
Yet, Taj soon reportedly accused Ashyana Gulsher of burning Koran pages. The Christian woman linked the "false accusations" to Taj's anger over a family request to return borrowed wheat. Taj was not immediately available for comment.
The escalating conflict was initially defused with mediation of other neighbors and a local clerk, but tensions apparently re-emerged in October when a Muslim cyclist went throughout the village shouting that Christians had burned the Koran, Masih explained.
His landlord allegedly also accused him and his children of "burning" the Koran and using pages to make paper airplanes and soon several mosques reportedly made announcements accusing Christians of blasphemy. That prompted a large crowd to gather in front of the family house, Masih recalled.
He said he called police who instead detained him and his daughter, initially for "protection," but later on charges of blasphemy. Lawyer Sindhu stressed that their detention underscored that Pakistan's "Christians are soft targets and most of the people implicated in these inhumane black controversial laws are Christians."
He claimed that during "cross examination at the Lahore High Court" he "logically proved that the blasphemy case against Gullsher Masih and his daughter was trumped up, frivolous, concocted and fake." It was based, Sindhu said, on "personal enmity [towards these Christians] and had nothing to do with the desecration of Koran or blasphemy against Islam" or Islam’s prophet Muhammad.
"We spent 14 months for something we didn't do," added Gullsher Masih. Ashyana Gullsher said she was taken into custody in October 2008 and soon shifted to the women ward of 'Central Jail Faisalabad' where she was apparently mistreated.
"Muslim inmates and even a prison officer beat me brutally and frequently, including with bamboo clubs...They asked me to embrace Islam and recant Christianity, which they view as a Western evil religion," she claimed.
She said she was pleased to be released from "that hell on Earth." Her father agreed. "During my 14 months in jail I was ruthlessly beaten five times by biased Muslim inmates."
Masih said a rich and dominant Muslim inmate pressured him to "recant Christianity and embrace Islam" in return for his freedom. "He even offered me to pay for the education of my children if I abandoned Christianity."
He suggested that their time in prison tested their Christian faith. "However the nightmare seems to be over, although I am worried about my and my family’s security now."
Sindhu told Worthy News that Pakistan should end blasphemy legislation under which Christians have been detained across the country. "I along with my team are fighting that all Christians can to the same rights as Muslims in Pakistan." He stressed he was pleased that his clients did not abandon their Christian faith, despite pressure from Muslim inmates, "who even offered wealth in exchange..." (With reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos).