Lahore Court Orders Two Christians Released
by Barbara G. Baker
ISTANBUL, March 19 (Compass) -- A Pakistani appeals court confirmed today the acquittal of two Christian brothers jailed nearly four years ago on charges of blasphemy. The two men had both been sentenced to 35 years in prison by a lower sessions court in May 2000.
In the appeals ruling handed down by Justice Rustam Ali Malik, the Lahore High Court ordered the release of the two Pakistani Christians, currently incarcerated in the Sahiwal Central Jail.
Saleem and Rasheed Masih have been under arrest and denied bail since June 1999, when they were accused of slandering the prophet Mohammed during an argument with an ice cream vendor in the Pasrur region of northeastern Pakistan.
But in the defense brief presented at their appeal hearing six weeks ago, attorney Pervez Aslam Chaudhry provided compelling evidence that the Muslim plaintiff held a grudge against the two brothers because of losing a civil land dispute against them. The Pasrur Sessions Court had ignored this evidence in its ruling.
Arguments on the long-delayed appeal, which finally began on January 31, were completed on February 3. At the conclusion of the hearing, Justice Malik instructed the brothers’ lawyer to obtain an affidavit from each man, declaring his innocence.
Chaudhry, a senior member of a team of lawyers from the Lahore-based Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), subsequently traveled to Sahiwal to obtain the signatures of his imprisoned clients and their jail superintendent.
“Each of them stated that they had nothing to do with the accusations, and that they had not uttered a single word against the honor of the prophet,” Chaudhry told Compass. The certified declarations were submitted to the court by mid February, he said.
It will take at least a week before the two men are actually discharged from prison to be reunited with their families, CLAAS coordinator Joseph Francis said. The brothers’ release orders must be transferred through legal channels between the various courts and prison authorities involved.
But then, according to Francis, “Their lives are still in danger.” Islamist radicals in Pakistan have categorically vowed to kill all accused blasphemers, even after the courts acquit them on clear-cut proof of false charges.
On February 6, a Muslim defendant granted bail by the Lahore High Court in a case of alleged blasphemy was shot dead by two unidentified assailants on his way home in a rickshaw from the courthouse. Mushtaq Zafar had been jailed since November 2001 on the allegations.
In its annual report for 2002 released yesterday by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the independent commission observed that the nation’s blasphemy laws “continued to be used to settle petty disputes, with clerics inciting mobs against those whom they accused of blasphemy.”