A Christian man incarcerated for nearly 10 years in a blasphemy case has been acquitted by the Lahore High Court (LHC) after the judges found no substantive evidence against him.
The convict, Sajjad Masih Gill, was freed from prison on Nov 13, after a two-judge bench comprising Justice Malik Shahzad Ahmad Khan and Justice Tariq Nadeem ordered his release on Oct 26.
Earlier on March 10, Justice Malik Shahzad Ahmad had converted Gill’s life prison sentence to the death penalty on a petition filed by lawyers of the Khatam Nabuwwat Forum (KNF). The judge had also accepted Gill’s appeal against his conviction and referred the matter for fixing before a division bench.
Gill’s lawyer Advocate Javed Sahotra told Kross Konnection that his client was facing serious security risks which is why they had kept the news of his acquittal and release secret.
“Gill is very happy after being released from prison but he cannot return to his normal life,” the lawyer added.
According to Advocate Sahotra, the hearing of Gill’s appeal was adjourned over a hundred times by the high court “because the judges weren’t ready to hear the case”.
“Such is the fear that surrounds blasphemy cases that when our appeal was fixed before a female judge, she outright refused to hear it. When I told her that the case had been pending in her court for the last several hearings, she said she had not read the case file, otherwise she would have immediately requested the chief justice to fix it before another judge.”
Sahotra said he appreciated the high court judges for administering justice, albeit after a prolonged delay.
“Though the court’s verdict is laudable, it’s high time the superior judiciary and the government realise the suffering of all those accused of blasphemy, especially those who have been framed in fake cases,” Sahotra said. “Gill was 27 years old when he was arrested, and he spent almost 10 years of his youth incarcerated on a false charge. Who will compensate for the immense loss that he has suffered during this time?”
He added that all people accused of blasphemy should be granted the right to bail to prevent such a grave human rights violation.
Gill’s mother was widowed 32 years ago, Sahotra said.
“His elderly mother has been living on the edge all these years fearing for her son’s fate, but she did not lose hope,” he said. “Her pain and anguish cannot be explained in words, and I think the news of Gill’s acquittal was nothing short of a miracle for her and the entire family.”
A trial court sentenced Gill to life in prison in 2011 under Section 295-C of the blasphemy statutes. A Muslim man had accused Gill of sending a blasphemous message. A Federal Shariat Court ruling in 1991, however, had removed life imprisonment from Section 295-C, leaving mandatory death and a fine as the only punishment.
Overturning Gill’s conviction on Oct 26, the two-judge bench ruled that the police had failed to recover from Gill any mobile phone and SIM card allegedly used in the offense, Sahotra said.
“There were no witnesses of the alleged incident who could implicate Gill as the writer and sender of that alleged text message,” he said. “The judges also accepted our argument that the FIR [First Information Report] against the accused was registered after a delay of 24 hours, raising doubts over the intention of the complainant.”
No one in Pakistan has been executed for blasphemy so far, though death sentences are increasing.
False accusations of blasphemy are common and often motivated by personal vendettas or religious hatred. The highly inflammatory accusations have the potential to spark mob lynchings, vigilante murders and mass protests.
Church leaders and human rights defenders say the government’s failure to curb the misuse of the blasphemy laws was emboldening false accusers and groups such as the KNF.
A Senate Special Committee on Human Rights and the Islamabad High Court in 2018 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.
While punishment for blasphemy ranges from several years in prison to death in Pakistan, a person making a false accusation faces potential punishment of only six months in prison or a fine of 1,000 rupees. Successive governments have acknowledged that the blasphemy laws are blatantly misused, but little effort has been made to stop the abuses.
Rights activists say it’s unlikely that any government will move to repeal or amend the blasphemy laws due to fierce religious sentiments in the Muslim-majority country. They say authorities must be urged to immediately implement effective procedural and institutional safeguards at the investigative, prosecutorial and judicial levels to prevent abuse of these laws.