A court in Bahawalpur, Punjab, on Tuesday sentenced a Christian youth to death on blasphemy charges, his lawyer and father said.
Advocate Lazar Allah Rakha said that a sessions court had concluded the jail trial of 22-year-old Noman Masih in January but kept delaying the verdict for five months on various pretexts. Noman was convicted of blaspheming against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), which carries a mandatory death sentence under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes.
“I’m extremely disappointed by the conviction because the prosecution had failed to provide substantive evidence against my client. Moreover, none of the witnesses produced by the police could corroborate the blasphemy allegation against him.
“Despite so many contradictions in the case, I’m at a loss to understand why Bahawalpur Additional Sessions Judge Muhammad Hafeez Ur Rehman Khan sentenced Noman to death instead of acquitting him,” the counsel told Kross Konnection.
He added that the family will challenge Noman’s conviction in the Bahawalpur Bench of the Lahore High Court as soon as it gets the detailed order.
Noman’s father, sanitation worker Asghar Masih told Kross Konnection that the family was shocked by the verdict.
He said that contrary to the police’s claim that officers had arrested Noman on July 1, 2019, his son was arrested in a late-night raid hours after the young man’s cousin, Sunny Waqas, was taken into custody 174 kilometers away by
Bahawalnagar police on a blasphemy charge on June 29, 2019.
“The allegations in both First Information Reports (FIRs) are baseless,” Asghar
Masih said. “Noman was sleeping in the house when he was
arrested, but the police have alleged that he was in a park showing blasphemous images to 9-10 people at 3:30 am.”
The past four years have been extremely difficult for the family, both emotionally and financially, he said.
“I work as a shop cleaner and can barely manage the household expenses in my meager salary. Ever since Noman’s incarceration, I’ve amassed a huge debt because I’ve to provide for his jail expenses on every visit,” he added.
Noman Masih and Waqas were arrested after police in their respective districts, citing “secret information,” filed cases against them under Section 295-C of the blasphemy law.
In FIR No. 359/19 registered with the Faqirwali Police Station in Bahawalnagar on June 29, 2019, Trainee Sub-Inspector Fraz Ahmed claimed he received “secret information” that Waqas had printed blasphemous sketches of Islam’s prophet and was carrying them in a black bag to show other people.
According to the complainant, upon questioning, Waqas told police that his cousin Noman had shared the alleged sacrilegious images with him on WhatsApp.
Waqas was then taken into custody and charged with blasphemy. His cousin was arrested on July 1, 2019, by Bahawalpur police.
FIR No. 366/19 registered by the Baghdadul Jadeed Police Station on the complaint of Sub-Inspector Muhammad Arshad Nadeem states that he received “secret information” that Noman Masih was sitting in a public park at 3:30 am with nine or 10 people and was showing them blasphemous images on his phone.
Sunny Waqas was granted bail by the LHC Bahawalpur Bench on Jan 17, but he was freed from prison on Feb 3, due to difficulties in raising an unprecedented exorbitant bail bond of 4 million rupees.
The maximum amount for bail under Section 295-C is 500,000 rupees.
The judge granted bail because the trial against Waqas had not concluded within the mandatory two-year period, according to his lawyer.
Courts routinely dismiss bail appeals of blasphemy suspects, especially when charges are made under Section 295-C, where the punishment is death, a non-bailable offense.
There are instances where suspects in non-bailable offenses, including murder, can be granted bail under the third proviso of Section 497 (1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Section 497 states that if suspects have not been formally charged, the trial has not been concluded within two years and the delay is not due to the accused, they should be granted bail.
SPIKE IN BLASPHEMY CASES
Several people have been lynched or killed unlawfully over false accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan.
According to data collected by the Lahore-based Center for Social Justice and People’s Commission for Minorities Rights, at least 57 cases of alleged blasphemy were reported in Pakistan between January 1 and May 10, 2023, while four blasphemy suspects were lynched or extrajudicially killed during the same period.
The data reflects the period from January to May 10, 2023, with eight incidents occurring in January, a significant increase to 17 cases in February, seven cases in March, another surge to 19 cases in April, and six cases in May (up to the 10th), totaling 57 accused individuals.
Statistics showed that the highest number of blasphemy cases, 28, were reported in Punjab, followed by Sindh with 16, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with eight, and Azad Jammu and Kashmir with five.