Pakistani Christian Imran Ghafur Masih (38) was arrested for blasphemy in 2009 after a neighbour falsely accused him of burning pages of the Quran. In 2010, he was sentenced to life in prison. His appeal hearing has been postponed almost seventy times and the case has passed through the hands of at least ten justices.
LATEST NEWS (15 DECEMBER 2020): The Lahore High Court acquitted Imran and he was released from Faisalabad Central Jail. He and his family went into hiding for fear of extremist attack.
On 1 July 2009, Imran Masih (then aged 27) was cleaning his family’s bookshop in Hajweri town, Faisalabad, Punjab Province. Gathering papers and old books to burn, he found an Arabic textbook and consulted his Muslim neighbour, Hajji Liaquat Ali, about disposing of it. Imran said that Ali, who owns a building materials business next door, told him to dispose of the book by burning it.
Ali, however, noticed the content of the burning pages and told local Muslims that a Christian was burning the Quran and should be killed. He filed a complaint at the local police station. Imran denied the allegations.
News of the incident spread quickly and local mosques announced by loudspeaker that a Christian had burned the Quran. Ali gathered an angry mob of about four hundred Muslims at Imran’s house. Eagar to stone Imran to death, the mob dragged out Imran, his brother Naveed and their father Ghafur, beating them severely and dousing them with paraffin in an effort to set them on fire. Faisalabad police intervened and arrested Imran, taking him to the local police station.
More than one thousand Muslim extremists surrounded and stoned the police station, demanding that the police hand Imran over to them and shouting, “Hang him who disgraces the Holy Quran… Christians are dogs; Imran is a dog.” The police registered a blasphemy case and distributed copies to calm the mob.
The situation for Christian families in Hajweri became very tense and Imran’s family fled the district. Hajji Liaqat Ali and his friends said they would not allow the family to live in the colony or run their businesses. Pupils from nearby schools bought books and stationery from Imran’s shop, but the angry Muslims went to those schools and distributed pamphlets urging teachers and pupils not to buy them from “a blasphemer’s bookshop”.
On 2 July 2009, Imran was transferred to prison. Islamists put pressure on his lawyer Rao Zafar Iqbal to quit the case, threatening him by phone and in person, but he refused. On 27 July 2009 two people shot at him, but he escaped.
During the investigation, it emerged that several Muslims had been planning an attack on Christian houses in Imran’s locality. However, some Muslim neighbours opposed the plan and saved the Christians. These neighbours were called “infidels” for helping the Christians.
On 11 January 2010, the Sessions Court of Faisalabad sentenced Imran to life in prison and fined him 100,000 rupees (€870). The court had convicted him under Sections 295-A and 295-B of Pakistan’s Penal Code. Judge Raja Ghazanfar Ali Khan said Imran had burned Quranic verses “on purpose” to “stir up religious hatred and offend the feelings of Muslims”. After judgment was pronounced, Imran’s neighbours brought traditional drum beaters into the neighbourhood, chanted Islamic slogans and distributed sweets in the streets to celebrate what they called “the triumph of Islam”.
Imran’s family claimed the false accusation arose because Hajji Liaquat Ali wanted to rent the shop premises that the family had rented for more than thirty years, to extend his building materials business. Ali had asked the landlady to remove the Masihs and let him rent the shop but she refused. The court, however, described this as “an absurd defence”.
Imran was imprisoned in Faisalabad Central Jail and his family appealed the decision to the High Court. On 18 September 2015, Imran appeared before Lahore High Court, but the judge made no decision and subsequent hearings were all postponed. It is thought that no judge or lawyer was willing to hear his appeal.
In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need on 12 June 2020, Khalil Tahir Sandhu, the lawyer fighting Imran’s conviction, said that the case against Imran was weakened by “substantial contradictions” in eyewitness statements concerning the date and time of the alleged incident and whether or not they were capable of reading the Arabic script reportedly containing the Quranic text.
Imran’s acquittal in December 2020 came as a huge, joyful surprise to his family, but he and his family had to go into hiding immediately for fear of extremist attack.
Imran’s family was able to visit him regularly in prison. In March 2012, his brother Naveed reported that he was spending a lot of time praying and reading the Bible. He said that at midnight Imran would pray and sing spiritual songs, and that sometimes Muslim prisoners joined him and asked for prayer. Imran’s brother-in-law Iftikhar Sahotra (33) collapsed and died at his court hearing.
Imran’s elderly mother died on 1 February 2020. “I’m helpless because I was far from her,” he said when he heard the news in late April. “My mother was my strength because she always prayed for me. She had a wish to see me free from jail. But now she left me alone.” Imran’s father also died during his imprisonment.
1 July 2009 Imran Masih was accused of burning pages containing Quranic verses. A mob of angry Muslims tried to kill him but the police intervened and arrested him under the blasphemy laws.
2 July 2009 Imran was transferred to prison.
11 January 2010 The Sessions Court of Faisalabad convicted Imran of wilfully insulting and desecrating the Quran and sentenced him to life in prison.
18 September 2015 Imran’s appeal hearing came before Lahore High Court, but the judge made no decision.
28 October 2015 A scheduled appeal hearing was postponed.
12 November 2015 A scheduled appeal hearing was cancelled.
12 June 2020 Aid to the Church in Need published an interview with Khalil Tahir Sandhu, the lawyer fighting Imran’s conviction, in which he said that Imran’s appeal hearing had been postponed almost seventy times and that the case had passed through the hands of at least ten justices. Mr Sandhu said that after the latest adjournment, the next hearing date at Lahore High Court was set for 6 July 2020.
September 2020 Imran’s appeal hearing was adjourned to 16 October 2020.
15 December 2020: The Lahore High Court acquitted Imran and he was released from Faisalabad Central Jail. He and his family went into hiding for fear of extremist attack.
(Aid to the Church in Need/Christians in Pakistan/European Centre for Law and Justice/Express Tribune/Pakistan Christian Post/Voice of the Martyrs)