Two Christians accused of blasphemy, including one who has spent four years in jail, have obtained bail from the Supreme Court of Pakistan, sources said.

Patras Masih in police custody in 2018. (Morning Star News)

Following the release on bail earlier last week of another Christian accused of blasphemy, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court on Wednesday (Aug. 24) granted bail to Patras Masih and Raja Waris as advocates renewed calls for a stop to misuse of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws.

“Granting bails is not a solution to this menace,” Minorities Alliance Pakistan President Akmal Bhatti told Morning Star News. “We have repeatedly demanded for legislation against false accusers, but the government has paid no heed to our demands. The blasphemy laws are being used as a weapon to target minorities and to settle personal enmities, and it’s about time the government puts an end to this trend.”

Justice Ijaz Ul Ahsan and Justice Mazahar Ali Naqvi granted bail for the two Christians accused in separate cases. While the hearing and ruling came on Wednesday (Aug. 24), the bail order to release the 22-year-old Masih, jailed since February 2018, was issued on Saturday (Aug. 27).

Attorney Aneeqa Maria of the Voice Society, said the bench decided to release Masih considering the “peculiar aspects and facts of the case.”

“The court admitted our lawyers’ arguments that the charge of Section 295-C had been wrongly framed against Patras Masih,” Maria said. “The judges also noted that cases of alleged blasphemy under Section 295-C [insulting Muhammad] could only be registered on the recommendation of a Muttahida Ulema Board [of eminent Islamic scholars], which did not happen in Masih’s case.”

The bench said that the Federal Investigation Agency or the police could not determine on their own whether the alleged offense came under Section 295-C, she said.

The court’s Aug. 27 bail order noted that the First Information Report against Masih was registered after an inordinate delay of 34 days without plausible explanation. The bench also cited the delay in trial completion and held that the accused was not the only party responsible for it.

Saying the trial court must first provide a definite finding on the nature of the allegedly blasphemous image posted in a Facebook group, the order stated, “Keeping the petitioner behind the bars for an indefinite period would not be in the interest of justice since he has already spent four years in prison. Considering all the facts and circumstances, the petition falls under Section 479(2) of the CrPC requiring further inquiry.”

Masih was 18 years old when he was accused in February 2018 of sharing a photo posted on Facebook deemed insulting to Muhammad, triggering violent protests by Islamist parties and forcing hundreds of Christian families to flee their homes in the Shahdara Town area of Lahore.

Attorney Sittar Sahil, who represented Masih along with attorney Saif Ul Malook, said he told the court that the blasphemy allegation against Masih did not merit a case under Section 295-C, which mandates death for disrespecting Islam’s prophet.

“Masih is accused of insulting Prophet Muhammad, whereas the picture he allegedly posted on a Facebook group does not contain any material that can be deemed sacrilegious to the prophet,” Sahil told Morning Star News. “Section 295-C is purely specific to the disrespect of Prophet Muhammad through spoken or written words or images. Masih is accused of posting a blasphemous image of the Roza-e-Rasool [prophet’s grave], which does not fall under Section 295-C.”

He added that the prosecution had failed to establish that the photo was uploaded to the Facebook group from Masih’s cellphone.

“The SC granted bail to Masih because the case requires further inquiry,” Sahil said.

Waris Granted Bail

Attorney Malook told the bench that the entire process against his client, Waris, a lay leader with the Anglican Church of Pakistan, was illegal.

“I asked the court to inquire whether the trial court had sought written permission from the federal or provincial governments under Section 196 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) before initiating the trial of the accused,” Malook told Morning Star News.

Section 196 of CrPC states, “No court shall take cognizance of any offence punishable under Chapter VI or IXA of the Pakistan Penal Code (except Section 127), or punishable under Section 108-A, or Section 153-A, or Section 294-A, or Section 295-A or Section 505 of the same Code, unless upon complaint made by order of, or under authority from, the Central Government, or the Provincial Government concerned, or some officer empowered in this behalf by either of the two Governments.”

Waris was arrested on Jan. 5, 2021, and charged under Sections 295-A and 298-A of the blasphemy laws over a Facebook post of Dec. 22, 2020. Section 298-A provides for up to three years in prison for derogatory remarks about a “holy personage,” while Section 295-A calls for up to 10 years in prison for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outreach religious feelings.”

Malook said that according to third proviso of Section 497(1) of the CrPC, anyone  charged with an offense not punishable with death whose trial has not been concluded within a year of his arrest is entitled to be released on bail.

“The bench admitted my arguments and ordered the release of Raja Waris on bail,” he said.

The bails were granted after Supreme Court Justice Qazi Fael Isa and Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah on Tuesday (Aug. 23) granted bail to Salamat Mansha Masih, also accused of blasphemy.

‘Stop Misuse’

Church of Pakistan President Azad Marshall welcomed the bails but said the state must stop misuse of the statutes.

“These three bails have yet again shown how blasphemy laws are being misused in Pakistan,” Marshall told Morning Star News. “Police have made it a norm to disregard prescribed procedures while framing charges, and even the trial courts do not take into account the facts of the cases due to pressure from religious groups.”

Marshall said bails or acquittals cannot compensate for the suffering of innocent people charged with blasphemy.

“Our people languish in jails for years till the time courts realize the miscarriage of justice and set them free,” he said. “These inhumane acts must cease now, and the state must act to bring a deterrent against false accusations.”

Although Pakistan has never executed anyone convicted under the laws, vigilantes frequently entrap and sometimes kill persons accused of blasphemy.

The Lahore-based Center for Social Justice noted that at least 1,949 persons were accused under the blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2021. From 2021 until July 14, another 18 cases were reported. The accused from 1987 to 2021 included 47.62 percent Muslims, followed by 32.99 percent Ahmadis, 14.42 percent Christians, and 2.15 percent Hindus, while the religion of 2.82 percent was not confirmed.

Pakistan ranked eighth on Open Doors’ 2022 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. The country had the second-highest number of Christians killed for their faith, behind Nigeria, with 620 slain during the reporting period from Oct. 1, 2020 to Sept. 30, 2021. Pakistan had the fourth-highest number of churches attacked or closed, with 183, and overall.

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