A court in Lahore has granted bail to a Christian couple arrested on blasphemy charges in September, a rare occurrence in Pakistan where blasphemy suspects often spend years in jail awaiting trial.
Shaukat Masih and Kiran Shaukat (pictured with their daughters Sundas and Ruby and son Sabir) were granted bail by Additional Sessions Judge Lahore Mian Shahid Javed on 18 October, enabling their release from jail on 21 October. Bail was set at 100,000 Pakistani rupees (approximately €335) each and was granted despite strong opposition from the Assistant District Public Prosecutor.
“We have been away from our children for over a month, and each day we spent in prison was spent thinking what would become of them if we couldn’t get out,” Shaukat told Morning Star News. He is a sanitation worker, while his wife works as a domestic helper in various homes.
Shaukat (33) and Kiran (28) were arrested in September and charged under Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code after local Muslim Muhammad Taimur accused them of throwing torn pages of the Quran from the roof of their house. Section 295-B carries a mandatory life sentence for desecrating the Quran.
According to the First Incident Report (FIR), the complainant said that on the night of 8 September, while he was at a food shop, he witnessed several pages flying to the ground from the rooftop of a house in Chaudhry Colony. He went to the house to inquire about the scattered papers and Kiran told him they might have been accidentally thrown by her children. Taimur was given permission to enter the house and he carried out a search, finding a pink bag containing more torn Quranic pages behind a water tank on the roof. He called the police, who came and took possession of the bag and the pages.
The couple was taken into custody on 9 September and incarcerated in Kot Lakhpat Jail. A police officer told Morning Star News on condition of anonymity that police had arrested the couple to prevent violent protests by Muslims. “It’s true that the police had to book the poor couple under pressure,” he said.
Shaukat and Kiran’s lawyer Zahid Nazeer said the torn pages were not from the Quran but from a Grade 9 Islamic Studies book, which was in a bag containing scrap paper intended for sale to a scrap vendor. “The couple has three minor children, two of whom are suffering from mental and physical disabilities, and they also can’t be held accountable for desecration of the holy pages,” he told Morning Star News. “None of the three children has ever been to school, so it’s absurd to even claim that they tore off the pages intentionally.”
The lawyer said he told the court that his clients were innocent as they were not present at the site at the time of the alleged incident. “Moreover,” he said, “Section 295-B clearly states that there has to be clear intent in committing the said crime, whereas in this case there was no evidence that showed that the couple had committed the alleged act deliberately or wilfully.”
He said there were indications that police showed undue haste in registering the FIR against the couple. “The police did not recover the alleged evidence itself, rather it was handed to them by the complainant. Therefore, there’s a high chance of tampering with the evidence,” he said, and added that the judge also observed that the case required further inquiry.
Nasir Jameel of advocacy group the Living Water Society also said the allegation was baseless as the couple was not present in the house at the time. “Masih was out for work, while Kiran was working in a neighbouring house,” he told Morning Star News. “When Kiran heard a commotion in the street, she came out and saw five or six men standing outside her home. When she inquired about the reason, the men told her about the torn Koranic pages.”
Shaukat and Kiran describe incident
Speaking at the office of local humanitarian organisation HARDS Pakistan, Shaukat and Kiran said they “couldn’t thank God enough” for their release from jail and reunion with their children. Shaukat said he was working at a car service station when the alleged incident took place and that he was surprised to see a crowd gathered outside his house when he returned home. He told Morning Star News, “As soon as I entered the building, some men started beating me up, calling me a blasphemer. They also beat my wife, paying no attention to our pleas that we had no idea about the alleged crime.”
Nasir Jameel said the men also attacked a Muslim couple staying as guests of Shaukat and Kiran and that they injured the husband, identified only as Waseem. Police arrested the Muslim couple too, but released them after a few hours. The children were also released before long.
Shaukat said that he and his wife are employed by a kind Muslim man in Britain who pays them to take care of his property, where the family has been living in one of the rooms. “We have been living there for over a year, but now we will not be going back to that area,” he said. “We don’t feel safe.”
Kiran described how the complainant and other Muslims forced their way into the house. “I was working in the house of my employer’s sister who lives in the same street when this incident happened,” she said. “The group of men forced me to open the gate of our house and stormed inside while pushing me away and hurling abuse.”
She said she had no idea about the presence of the Quranic verses in the bag. “The bag was given to me by my employer’s sister to sell to some scrap vendor,” she said. “I honestly didn’t know it contained material that could put us in such great risk.”
She expressed gratitude to Sohail Habel, Chief Executive of HARDS Pakistan, for taking good care of the children (aged 13, 9 and 7) while she and her husband were in jail.
Nasir Saeed, Director of CLAAS-UK, commended the courage of Additional Sessions Judge Mian Shahid Javed in deciding this case based on merit.
A press release from CLAAS-UK states, “The landmark judgment breaks from the norm, where trial courts often refuse bail, burdening accused individuals with lengthy legal battles that can extend all the way to the Supreme Court. Many victims of blasphemy laws languish in prison for years without resolution.
“Mr Nasir Saeed highlights the urgent need for appropriate changes to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to prevent innocent individuals from suffering for crimes they did not commit. He also emphasises the necessity of conducting regular hearings in such cases to ensure that innocent individuals do not endure prolonged imprisonment.”
Learn more about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
(CLAAS-UK, Morning Star News)
Photo: Morning Star News