Sawan Masih was acquitted after spending more than six years on death row.
A Pakistani court on Tuesday acquitted Sawan Masih, a Christian man, sentenced to death for blasphemy in a rare judgment that was hailed as “daring.”
“Sawan Masih, a road sweeper from the eastern city of Lahore, was acquitted by a Lahore High Court division bench headed by Justice Syed Shehbaz Ali Rizvi, after spending more than six years on death row,” International Christian Concern reported.
Joseph Francis, the head of the centre that provides legal assistance to Christians facing blasphemy charges, said “I must say the Lahore High Court has given a daring judgment in Sawan’s case.’’
There are at least 12 more Christians whose appeals against death sentences on blasphemy charges are pending, he added.
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.
Blasphemy is a sensitive topic in Pakistan and those accused can become the targets of Muslim vigilante groups. In some cases, they have been gunned down, burned alive, or bludgeoned to death.
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.
This is the second case in which a Christian has been acquitted, after Asia Bibi, on blasphemy charges in the country.
Hard-line Islamists staged massive protests against the October 2018 acquittal of Asia Bibi, who was given a death sentence in 2010 over allegations of blasphemy.
The case attracted global attention and led to the killing in 2011 of the then-Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who sought to reform blasphemy laws.
Pakistan ranks fifth on Open Doors 2020 World Watch list of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.