Christian woman falsely charged with blasphemy gets bail

    A court has released on bail a Christian woman charged with blasphemy after she was accused of intentionally burning papers containing Quranic verses last month, her lawyer said.

    Advocate Lazar Allah Rakha said that Arifwala Additional Sessions Judge Ijaz Ahmad Phulwaran on May 12, admitted the post-arrest bails of Musarrat and her co-accused, Muhammad Sarmad against surety bonds of PKR100,000 each. The two were released from prison on May 13.

    “The court accepted my arguments that there was a four-day delay in the registration of the First Information Report [FIR] against Musarrat Bibi and Muhammad Sarmad. Moreover, both accused had no intention of burning the Quranic pages.

    “Both accused are illiterate and were only carrying out orders of the school administration to clean the storeroom of the school where Musarrat worked as an office worker while Sarmad, a Muslim, was the gardener,” the lawyer said.

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    Advocates Lazar and Javed Sahotra represented the Christian woman whereas Sarmad’s defense was presented by Advocate Saeed Ahmed.

    Mussarat, 45, and Sarmad worked at the Government Girls Higher Secondary School in 66-EB village, Arifwala tehsil of Pakpattan District.

    On April 15, both workers were told to clean the school’s storeroom that was filled with paper and other scrapped items. The duo reportedly gathered the wasted paper and other scraps in a corner of the school and set them on fire. Some students later noticed that the burnt items also contained holy pages.

    According to Advocate Sahotra, school staff members, including principal Nasreen Saeed, were aware that Musarrat and Sarmad had not burned Quranic pages intentionally. They also tried to pacify protests by some teachers and students.

    On April 19, four days after the alleged incident, a local Muslim named Kashif Nadeem called a police helpline and accused the Christian woman of committing blasphemy by burning Quranic pages at the girls’ school. Nadeem named only the Christian woman, but police found the gardener was also involved in setting the pages on fire during the investigation, the lawyer said.

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    “The complainant also gathered a mob outside the school and started protesting against the incident,” Sahotra said. “Even though the school principal and other teachers told the police that Mussarat and Sarmad had not burned the pages intentionally as both were illiterate, the police arrested them to avoid unrest by the protesters.”

    The Christian woman and Muslim man were charged under Section 295-B of the blasphemy statutes and sent to Pakpattan jail on judicial remand. Section 295-B states, “Whoever willfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Quran or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.”

    Bibi has three daughters, two married, while the youngest is 14 and lives with her mother. Bibi’s husband, Barkat Masih, had worked as a teacher in the same school, and after his death five years ago, the institution hired her as an office worker in accordance with government service rules. She also ran a small canteen in the school to supplement her income.

    Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unproven allegations can stir mobs and violence.

    In February, an angry mob entered a police station in Nankana Sahib district, snatched a person accused of blasphemy from his cell, and killed him.

    In December 2021, a Sri Lankan national, Priyantha Diyawadanage, who was working as a factory manager in Sialkot city, was beaten to death and set ablaze by an angry crowd over allegations of blasphemy.

    International and Pakistani rights groups say accusations of blasphemy have often been used to intimidate religious minorities and settle personal scores. Pakistan’s government has long been under pressure to change the country’s blasphemy laws, but other political forces in the country have strongly resisted.

    According to the Centre for Social Justice, a Lahore-based research and advocacy group, more than 2,000 people have been accused of committing blasphemy since 1987, and at least 88 people have been killed by mobs after similar allegations.

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