International Christian Concern (ICC) has learned that the Lahore High Court has acquitted Sawan Masih, a Christian man sentenced to death under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws. Masih was convicted in March 2014, just over a year after he allegedly committed blasphemy.
“A Lahore High Court division bench headed by Justice Syed Shehbaz Ali Rizvi acquitted Sawan Masih,” a court official told PTI on Tuesday. The court official went on to say that the Lahore High Court also ordered Masih to be released from custody.
On March 8, 2013, Sawan Masih was accused by his Muslim friend, Muhammad Shahid, of insulting the Prophet Muhammad during a conversation on March 7. According to Shahid, Masih said, “My Jesus is genuine. He is the Son of Allah. He will return while your Prophet is false. My Jesus is true and will give salvation.” The incident allegedly took place in the primarily Christian neighborhood of Joseph Colony, located in Lahore.
The next day, March 9, local mosques recounted the accusation against Masih over their PA systems, inciting mob violence. A mob of more than 3,000 enraged Muslims attacked Joseph Colony, looting and burning approximately 180 Christian homes, 75 shops, and at least two churches. Amid the violence, Masih was handed over to the police and was later charged under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s Penal Code.
On March 27, 2014, Masih was sentenced to death under Section 295-C by Judge Chaudhry Ghulam Murtaza in a trial held in the Lahore Camp Jail due to security concerns.
On appeal, Masih’s lawyer raised several objections to the police investigation and the prosecution. The lawyer told the court that the police registered the case 35 hours after the alleged incident and claimed that this showed mala fide intent in the case. Masih’s lawyer also pointed to contradictions in the First Information Report (FIR) and the testimony narrated by the complainant before the trial court.
After hearing arguments from both sides, the Lahore High Court decided that the prosecution had failed to establish that Masih had committed blasphemy. The court went on to acquit Masih, reversing his death sentence, and ordered his release.
In Pakistan, false accusations of blasphemy are widespread and often motivated by personal vendettas or religious hatred. Accusations are highly inflammatory and have the potential to spark mob lynchings, vigilante murders, and mass protests.
Currently, 25 Christian are imprisoned on blasphemy charges in Pakistan. These 25 Christians are defendants in 22 blasphemy cases represented at various levels of the judicial process in Pakistan.
ICC’s Regional Manager for South Asia, William Stark, said, “We here at International Christian Concern are happy to see Sawan Masih finally acquitted and released after six long years in prison. It is rare to see such a high profile blasphemy case against a Christian justly resolved at the High Court level in Pakistan. However, we remain deeply concerned for the safety of Sawan and his family. Extremists in Pakistan are known to target individuals accused of religious crimes, like blasphemy, even if they have been acquitted. The abuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws must be curbed and false allegations must be rooted out and punished. Too often these laws have been a tool in the hands of extremists seeking to stir up religiously motivated violence against minority communities. Without real reform, religious minorities, including Christians, will face more false blasphemy accusations and the extreme violence that often accompanies these accusations.”