The Supreme Court (SC) has directed state functionaries to exercise “utmost care” while dealing with blasphemy cases, stressing that Islamic jurisprudence requires the highest form of evidence to “establish the guilt of an accused in a hadd offense”.
“Unfortunately, such cases receive wide publicity which has an adverse effect and may also jeopardise a fair trial,” stated Justice Qazi Faez Isa in a nine-page detailed judgement pertaining to the case of a Christian sanitary worker imprisoned since being accused of committing blasphemy last year.
A division bench of the apex court comprising Justice Isa and Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah had last week heard the post-arrest bail request of Salamat Mansha Masih who is employed as a sweeper with the Lahore Waste Management Company (LWMC).
“Irresponsible and sensational broadcasts and publications repeat what allegedly the accused had said or done; those repeating this may themselves be committing the same offense,” said the judgement, expressing reservations over the “serious” nature of “offenses relating to religion”.
“A Section 295-C offense prescribes only punishment by death,” it observed and furthered that “therefore, utmost care must be exercised by all concerned that no injustice in the administration of justice takes place”.
The judgement also took notice of how “many a time false allegations are levelled to settle personal scores and cases are also registered for mischievous purposes or on account of ulterior motives”.
Justice Isa also stressed that “righteous zeal, moral outrage, and/or indignation” may also “steer” the prosecution to by-pass the “general standard of proof” and therefore, urged the state to “proceed with meticulosity and diligently investigate the alleged crime” in such matters.
The court also said that “abiding by Islamic jurisprudential principles, applying the constitutionally guaranteed right to fair trial and due process, and acting prudently to ensure that an innocent is not convicted wrongly in respect of offenses relating to religion, when there is only the improbable oral testimony of witnesses, then there must be corroboration”.
The court held that in such cases if a private complainant takes “too keen an interest it may impinge on his credibility and may be indicative of mischief or an ulterior motive” and that “in quite a few cases it has been noted that complainants grandstand and are joined in by others who try to pressurise the prosecution and the Courts”.
In the present case, the court observed that the complainant, who is a student, came to Islamabad from Lahore to oppose the bail petition before the SC when “there was no need for him to do this because the case was to be attended to by the State and its law officers”.
The judgement also noted that “an accused person’s fundamental right to a fair trial and due process must also be ensured, and all the more so in cases for which severe punishments are prescribed.” Nonetheless, the SC also stated that “there have been instances when tempers were provoked and enflamed by provocateurs, and a mob was collected and enraged to take the law into its own hands, to hurt and even kill the accused, before he was ever adjudged guilty”.
“The law prohibits the taking of the law into one’s hands, let alone to cause hurt or death, and this protection is also fully applicable to one who may be guilty,” stated the court order.
The court also remarked that Islamic jurisprudence considers “offenses relating to religion to be offenses against God” and observed that “to establish the guilt of an accused in a hadd offense” the highest form of evidence is required “and any doubt exonerates the accused”.
“In Islamic jurisprudence even if a person has been found guilty and sentenced to death, the sentence cannot be executed by one who is not so authorized, and if he kills the convict, he is liable for the offense of iftiyat (wasting the right of the State) and is to be punished.”
The judgement says that the prosecution’s evidence against the petitioner (accused) comprises the statements of four friends. “We have examined their testimony which commences by stating that the petitioner’s co-accused produced the Zindagi Ka Pani book and that, both accused intentionally started preaching Christianity”.
Preaching of Christianity, however, “is not a crime nor can it be made into one because of the fundamental right to profess, practice and propagate religion,” said the court.
A copy of the order was also directed by the SC to be sent to the provincial and capital prosecution departments to “ensure that the investigation of offenses relating to religion, under Chapter XV of the Pakistan Penal Code, are conducted in accordance with the law and the Constitution” as explained in the order.
The accused’s lawyer, Advocate Rana Abdul Hameed, had last week told Kross Konnection that this was the first time a blasphemy accused charged under all three sections of the statutes – 295-A, 295-B, and 295-C – had been given bail during the trial.
Section 295-C is specific to disrespect of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and is punishable by death; 295-B relates to defiling of the holy Quran and is punishable by imprisonment for life and fine; while 295-A covers deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings and is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine.
“Masih, 27, was arrested on Feb 13, 2021, from Lahore’s Model Town Park after some college students overheard him and another Christian Haroon Ayub Masih reading the Bible in a park and accused them of ridiculing Islam and its prophet,” the lawyer said. He added that Haroon had managed to escape from the scene and has gone into hiding ever since after obtaining a pre-arrest bail.
Advocate Hameed said that Masih was in illegal custody of the police for two months before he was presented before a judge on April 16.
“A sessions judge had dismissed Masih’s bail application last year while the Lahore High Court had also denied him bail in June this year.
“I moved his bail in the Supreme Court last week which was taken up by a two-judge bench comprising Justice Qazi Faez Isa and Justice Mansoor Ali Shah on Tuesday. I told the honorable bench that Masih had been accused by four students of committing blasphemy while preaching Christianity and also gifting them a book in Urdu language that, according to the complainant, contained sacrilegious matter,” he said.
The lawyer said that he told the court that the book “Zindagi Ka Paani or Water of Life was based on the Gospel of John and did not contain any sacrilegious matter against any religion – a fact also conceded by the concerned Lahore senior police officer from the prosecution side.
BAIL FOR TWO MORE CHRISTIANS
A day after granting bail to Salamat Masih, the apex court had last week also given bail to two other Christians charged with blasphemy.
A two-judge bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justice Ijaz Ul Ahsan and Justice Mazahar Ali Naqvi on Wednesday granted bails to two accused – Patras Masih and Raja Waris – in separate cases.
Patras Masih was 18 years old when he was accused in February 2018 of sharing a photo posted on Facebook deemed insulting to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), triggering violent protests by religious parties and forcing hundreds of Christian families to flee from their homes in the Shahdara Town area of Lahore. Patras was arrested and charged under Section 295-C, which is punishable by death.
Raja Waris, an outreach lay leader belonging to the Anglican Church of Pakistan, was arrested on Jan 5, 2021. He was charged under Sections 295-A and 298-A of the blasphemy laws over a Facebook post he posted on 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”.
BLASPHEMY ACCUSATIONS & PAKISTAN
Blasphemy accusations in Pakistan often provoke mob violence and lynching of suspects, while penalties are light for those who make such false accusations.
Lahore-based Center for Social Justice noted that at least 1949 persons had been accused under the blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2021.
Eighteen more cases were reported till July 14, 2022. The victims 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 is not confirmed.
Church leaders and rights activists say that subordinate courts capitulate to pressure, resulting in convictions in almost all blasphemy cases.