Pakistani Court Aquits Three Christians of Blasphemy

Friday, January 26, 2001

Muslim Accuser Under Investigation for Fabricating Case
by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, January 26 (Compass) -- A Pakistani high court acquitted three Christians of blasphemy, calling for an investigation as to whether their Muslim accuser had fabricated a false case against them two years ago.

In a ruling issued on January 25 by Justices Naeem Ullah Sharwani and Khawaja Mohammad Sharif of the Lahore High Court, Hussain Masih, his son Isaac Masih and Iqbal Sahar Ghouri were cleared of the charges, which carried a potential death penalty under Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws.

During the hearing yesterday, the chief prosecutor declared that "no direct or circumstantial evidence" could be produced to corroborate the complainant's claims. Observing that this meant there were "no valid grounds … against the accused," the justices ordered their case nullified.

According to a report issued later by the Lahore office of the Catholic-sponsored Justice and Peace Commission, the court ordered that complainant Ijaz Ahmed be investigated for "registration of a false and fabricated case against the accused."

A Muslim living next door to the Masih family, Ahmad had lodged a formal accusation of blasphemy against the three Christians on November 25, 1998, in Alipur Chatta, a village near Gujranwala in Punjab province.

Ahmed said he had found partially burned pages of the Koran and two letters containing derogatory remarks against the prophet of Islam in his yard near a wall separating his house from that of Hussein Masih. In his statement to local police, the Muslim declared that he "suspected his Christian neighbors" of the offense.

A joint fact-finding mission was conducted in Alipur Chatta by the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) and representatives of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) two and a half weeks after the case was filed. According to their findings, Ahmed had a running dispute with his Christian neighbors, whose home was separated from his own by a wall of clay bricks.

The Muslim had reportedly ordered Isaac Masih to stop playing hymns over the loudspeaker near the wall between their houses, complaining that his children were learning the words to Christian songs and prayers. Isaac's close friend, Ghouri, 23, was very active with him in prayer meetings and other religious activities held in the Masih home.

The head constable of Alipur Chatta, Mohammed Afzal, told the research team that Ahmed had gathered a procession of hundreds of "maulvis" (Muslim religious leaders) and threatened to set the police station on fire unless the officials agreed to register a blasphemy case against the three Christians. "We registered the case to avoid a tense situation in the city," Afzal said, admitting he did not have a large enough police force to confront the mob.

Local police promptly filed a case against the three under Section 295-C of the Pakistan penal code and issued warrants for their arrest. They first apprehended Ghouri, who was jailed for several weeks until the Gujranwala District and Sessions Court granted him bail on December 24.

Meanwhile, Hussain Masih and his son went into hiding to avoid arrest. But after consulting with a lawyer from the Lahore-based CLAAS, the father decided to present himself before the Additional Sessions Court in Gujranwala on December 29.

Hussain Masih was immediately jailed, and his lawyer's application for bail moved through the courts for nearly a year until it was finally granted by the Lahore High Court on December 6, 1999. His son Isaac remained in hiding, under warrant for arrest until yesterday's ruling.

The acquittal, which was the first granted to Christians accused of blasphemy in Pakistan since 1995, was pursued by CLAAS defense attorney Pervaiz Aslam Chaudhry.

"We are pleased with the ruling," said Fr. Emmanuel Yousaf Mani, national director of the Justice and Peace Commission, "and we pray that all innocent held under false charges be released soon and all unjust laws be repealed."

More than 50 Pakistani Christians have been victimized since 1987 for trumped-up allegations of insulting Islam, the Koran or the prophet Mohammed. At least seven Christians are currently imprisoned without bail on such blasphemy charges.

Over the past year, radical Islamist sects have begun to use the controversial laws as a trump card to file cases against rival Muslim groups, resulting in the jailing and sentencing of a number of Muslim leaders.

According to Asma Jahangir, a prominent human rights lawyer and Special Reporteur of the U.N. Human Rights Commission for Extra Judicial Killings, a total of 38 alleged blasphemy cases were filed in the first 10 months of 2000 against six Christians, 26 Muslims and 40 members of the minority Ahmadi sect.

Human Rights Watch has labeled the blatantly misused blasphemy law a "tool of religious persecution."

Copyright © 2001 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.