Rights activists are calling for compassion for all victims of blasphemy allegations following the granting of bail to a mentally challenged Christian.
Lahore High Court Judge Tariq Saleem Sheikh granted bail to Stephen Masih on May 31. Masih was attacked by a mob over blasphemy allegations following an argument with one of his neighbours in the Imranpura Badian village of Punjab province in March 2019. His family home was also set on fire.
Last year UN human rights experts appealed to Pakistan to immediately release Masih and expressed concern over his treatment by judicial and prison authorities “who are aware of his psychosocial disability and health condition”.
In July 2021, the Punjab Institute of Mental Health Lahore reported that Masih was suffering from bipolar affective disorder “and is unfit to stand trial at the moment”.
READ MORE: Activists join politicians in condemning misuse of blasphemy laws
Section 466 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) relating to mentally challenged people facing investigation or trial stipulates freedom from court irrespective of the nature of the offense subject to sufficient security that the person will be produced before the court whenever required.
“The counsel for the complainant’s contention is that the relatives of Stephen Masih may take him to an unknown place to save his life as the offense under Section 295C of the PPC is punished with death or imprisonment for life. However, he has not placed any material in support of his contention which shows that it is merely an apprehension,” stated the judge, who ordered Masih’s release on surety bonds of 200,000 rupees.
Civil society figures welcomed the verdict, calling it a victory for truth.
In a press release issued on June 4, rights outfit Voice for Justice demanded that all those who incite or engage in violence in the name of religion based on allegations of blasphemy, as well as those who falsely accuse others of blasphemy, be brought to justice and duly punished.
According to the NGO’s chairman Joseph Jansen, police tortured Masih’s mother, leaving her with fractures of the leg and arm.
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“She has not been able to recover and is bedridden since then. His family members fled the area and relocated to a safer place. This case is a clear example that blasphemy accusations stem from personal vendettas rather than genuine instances of blasphemy and lead to mob violence against the accused and their families,” he said.
Human rights activist Ashiknaz Khokhar noted that those accused of blasphemy have to face years-long imprisonment with limited opportunity for bail in Pakistan, which is a sad reality.
Advocate Farooq Bashir condemned apathy and increasing intolerance in society.
“Stephen is mentally retarded by birth, but it is lamentable that none of the neighbours have had the courage to make a statement before the court about his mental condition due to threats associated with the blasphemy accusation,” he said.
Last month, 80-year-old Muhammad Sharif was beheaded for allegedly desecrating the flag of a religious organisation in Sargodha, Punjab province.
FALSE BLASPHEMY ALLEGATIONS
Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan where laws prescribe a mandatory death penalty for the guilty. Mere blasphemy allegations often provoke mob violence and lynching of suspects while those who make false accusations of blasphemy are sent home with a slap on the wrist.
According to the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), at least 1,949 blasphemy accused were subjected to false allegations, prolonged trials and displacement between 1985 and December 2021.
It adds that at least 84 people were killed after being suspected or accused under the said laws since their promulgation as part of former military ruler Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation during the 1980s.
READ MORE: Fears grow amid surge in anti-blasphemy violence in Pakistan
Mobs have lynched two people and injured two others in four cities of Pakistan between December 2021 and March 2022.
Sri Lankan national Priyantha Kumara, 48, was accused of committing blasphemy at the factory he managed in Sialkot and was beaten to death by a mob last December whereas a mentally challenged person, Mushtaq Ahmad, was in February this year stoned to death by an enraged mod after the son of a local cleric accused him of burning pages of the Holy Quran in Khanewal.
The continuous rise in incidents of violence over unproven blasphemy allegations has time and again prompted Ulemas to vociferously condemn such practices and declare the killing of any person under such circumstances as un-Islamic.
The courts have the authority to punish the perpetrator of blasphemy and taking the law into one’s hands is not permissible according to both Sharia and law of the land, they say.