On 5 October, the Lahore High Court, presided over by Justice Syed Shehbaz Ali Rizvi (pictured), acquitted Sawan Masih of blasphemy – seven years after he had been accused. The verdict was announced after the High Court heard final arguments from the prosecution and defence.
Sawan has been in prison since 2013 and was sentenced to death in 2014. His appeal has been adjourned repeatedly since then – on at least sixteen occasions. At the court hearing on 5 October, Sawan’s lawyer, Tahir Bashir, from Church in Chains’ partner organisation Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), insisted that Sawan had been falsely implicated in the case.
Mr Bashir also highlighted the fact that there was a thirty-four hour delay in the registration of a First Information Report (FIR) and that although the accusation was that Sawan made derogatory remarks against the Prophet Mohammed, no actual remarks were added or mentioned in the FIR. He also pointed out that the witnesses who testified against Sawan had made contradictory statements and were not consistent in their evidence at the trial. In announcing their verdict, the judges declared that the prosecution had failed to establish Sawan’s involvement in blasphemy.
David Turner (Director, Church in Chains) responded to the news saying: “This is great news and we rejoice with Sawan, his family and all those, including our partners at CLAAS, who have worked tirelessly for justice. The clear verdict announced by the Lahore High Court is a great encouragement to all who have been so disheartened by the repeated adjournment of appeal hearings in this and many other blasphemy cases.
“We are now encouraging urgent prayer: for those seeking to help Sawan; that no obstacles are put in the way of him being released from prison; and that he and his wife Sobia and their three children will be able to live in safety now.”
Sawan Masih is a Christian who worked as a street sweeper in the Punjab capital Lahore. He was arrested in March 2013 after his Muslim friend Shahid Imran accused him of having committed blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed during a conversation between them.
Rumours spread and a mob of more than 3,000 angry Muslims, incited by local clerics, attacked Sawan’s home in Joseph Colony, a predominantly Christian district. They looted and torched 180 Christian homes, 75 shops and two churches, displacing hundreds of families.
Sawan was handed over to the police and was held in detention ever since. At his trial in March 2014, held in prison in Lahore due to security concerns, he said he was innocent and accused Shahid Imran of involving him as part of a conspiracy by local businessmen to drive Christians from Joseph Colony so they could seize it for industrial use. Joseph Colony residents and Christian rights activists also said a land-grab by local factory owners was behind the attack.
Sawan was convicted of blasphemy, fined and sentenced to death. Rights groups and lawyers criticised the death sentence and said the case was weak; a lawyer on Sawan’s defence panel said he believed the judge had convicted him under pressure from local Muslim groups.
(CLAAS, Express Tribune)