The plight of a mentally ill Christian man incarcerated in a prison for over two years awaiting trial for allegedly committing blasphemy has drawn the attention of the United Nations officials, who have called for his immediate release.
In a statement addressed to the Pakistani authorities, UN human rights experts appealed the government to immediately release Stephen Masih, a resident of Sialkot, who is in detention for over two years but his trial is yet to begin.
“We are seriously concerned by the persecution and ongoing detention of Mr Masih on blasphemy grounds, and by his treatment at the hands of the judicial and prison authorities who are aware of his psychosocial disability and health condition,” the experts said in the statement released on Oct 21.
Urging the Pakistani authorities to urgently review Masih’s case, the UN experts demanded quashing the blasphemy charge against him and releasing him immediately.
The UN experts said they were concerned by the continued persecution and acts of violence perpetrated by state and non-state actors in Pakistan, fueled by claims of apostasy and blasphemy, often targeting religious or belief minorities.
Masih was attacked by a mob accusing him of committing blasphemy following an argument with one of his neighbors in Imran Pura Badian village in March 2019. His family home was also set on fire.
Local police registered a complaint and arrested him on March 15, 2019, but he was informed about the blasphemy charges only after three months.
“We urge the government of Pakistan to comply with its international human rights obligations, including with regard to freedom of expression, religion or belief. It is deeply alarming that a mere disagreement between neighbors could lead to the judicial harassment of an individual, based on his religious or other beliefs, and by the use of anti-blasphemy laws which may carry the death penalty,” the experts said.
According to information received by the UN experts, the prosecution did not disclose publicly any evidence against Masih and no witness testimonies were ever recorded.
The UN experts also said they were concerned by the lack of medical care given to Masih in Sialkot district jail. Medical reviews to assess his mental health and fitness to stand trial have been repeatedly delayed, they said.
The experts added that Masih’s reported detention in a cell with prisoners of the Muslim faith put him in danger and was a matter of concern.
“We urge the government of Pakistan to comply with its international human rights obligations, including with regard to freedom of expression, religion or belief, as well as with regard to the rights of persons who belong to minorities, to repeal all its anti-blasphemy and anti-apostasy legislation and to take measures to combat advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination and violence,” the statement read.
It added that UN officials are in contact with the Pakistani government to try to resolve the matter.
BLATANT MISUSE OF BLASPHEMY LAWS
In Pakistan, false accusations of blasphemy are common 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. Many accused individuals never reach the courtroom; violence has killed 62 people since 1990, with few prosecutions. Even lawyers defending those charged with blasphemy, presiding judges, and individuals speaking against the law are targeted.
With no presumption of innocence in Pakistan, anyone accused of blasphemy can be jailed while false allegations go unpunished. In 2018, a Senate Special Committee on Human Rights and the Islamabad High Court had recommended that those making false blasphemy accusations be given the same punishments as those for blasphemy convictions, but the government dismissed the recommendation. The recommendation also stated that anyone registering a blasphemy case at a police station must bring two witnesses.
The punishment for blasphemy in Pakistan ranges from several years in prison to a death sentence. By contrast, a person making a false accusation faces potential punishment of six months in prison or a fine of only 1,000 rupees. Although successive governments have acknowledged that the blasphemy laws are blatantly misused, little effort has been made to stop the abuses.