Innocent defendant still forced to stay in hiding.
by Barbara G. Baker
ISTANBUL, January 17, 2005 (Compass) -- Anwer Masih was acquitted in Lahore last month by a Judicial Magistrate’s Court, making him the first Pakistani Christian ever acquitted of blasphemy in Pakistan’s lower courts.
All Christian citizens tried on alleged blasphemy charges in Pakistan over the past two decades have eventually been acquitted through appeals to higher courts. But since the lower courts hearing their cases initially convicted them, they remained in prison on death row for additional years until the verdict was overthrown.
Judicial Magistrate Dr. Mohammed Anwar Gondal ruled in the December 17 hearing that the accusations against Masih were based only on hearsay evidence.
In addition, the magistrate declared that the First Information Report (FIR) filed against the defendant was nullified, since it violated Section 196 of the criminal procedure code. Under this statute, any prosecution of alleged blasphemy offenses under Article 295-A must first be approved by the central or provincial government before the FIR can be lodged.
Masih, now 32, was arrested November 30, 2003, and charged with violating Article 295 and 295-A of the Pakistan Penal Code, allegedly for “disturbing someone’s religious feelings” and slandering a religious prophet.
A neighbor of the defendant who had converted from Christianity to Islam claimed that Masih had mocked his new beard and derided Islamic beliefs. The plaintiff now goes by the name of Naseer Ahmed.
Masih was held in the Lahore District Jail for six months, until the Lahore High Court noted that no direct evidence had been produced against him and ordered him released on bail on June 4, 2004.
But according to lawyer Justin Gill, representing the Center for Legal Aid and Assistance Settlement in Lahore which defended Masih, his client remains in hiding, unable to be reunited with his wife and four children since his acquittal a month ago.
Fanatic extremists from the banned but active Lashkar-e-Mujahideen (Islamic Religious Army) have vowed to kill Masih over his alleged remarks against the prophet Mohammed.
In a handwritten threat in Urdu sent to Masih after he was released on bail, the group warned the defendant that only heavy police security at his court hearings on Friday, December 17, had prevented them from shooting him.
“But we will never let you go,” the letter said. “We will shoot you whenever we find you alone, since you blasphemed against our holy prophet. We have an earnest desire to kill you because you have infuriated us. We Muslims don’t want to see you alive. Someone from our Lashkar-e-Mujahideen will eliminate you one day.”
“I was really afraid for my life from the mob stirred up in the mosque that Friday,” Masih told Compass during an interview this past September. His wife, Bushra, had been forced to snatch up the children that afternoon and flee on the bus to her relatives living in another city.
“I was quite afraid when we had to leave, and I started crying,” she recalled. “I didn’t even take any clothes, because there wasn’t time. After 15 days I was able to visit him at the jail, but I never took the children to see him, because he didn’t want them to see him there.”
While the trial was underway, Masih’s accuser once tried to abduct the defendant’s young daughters from their school grounds. Masih and his wife have three daughters and a son, ages nine to two years. “I am safe in hiding, but my wife and family, including my parents, have been under pressure because of me,” Masih said.
“My religion says I should forgive this man,” Masih told Compass. “But after hearing these things, that he even tried to kidnap my daughters, I don’t want to forgive him.”
Masih has been able to meet his wife, children and parents secretly on occasion. “But I know the mullahs are still searching for me,” he said.
With his judicial charges cleared but his life still under threat, Masih joins more than a dozen other Pakistani Christians who, despite their innocence, have been forced to apply for asylum abroad to live under new identities.