Nabeel Masih (20) was imprisoned in Pakistan in September 2016, when he was accused of liking and sharing a Facebook post that allegedly “defamed and disrespected” the Kaaba in Mecca. At the time of his arrest, Nabeel was only 16 and illiterate. He said Muslim friends set up the account in his name and posted the image. Despite the weakness of the case against him, in May 2018 Nabeel was sentenced to ten years in prison for blasphemy.
LATEST NEWS (MARCH 2021) Nabeel was released on bail early on the morning of 18 March and was taken to a place of safety, while his lawyers work to get him acquitted. He hopes to start a new life abroad, safe from extremist attacks. Prison authorities denied Nabeel medical treatment for large, painful lipomas he developed while incarcerated, but since his release he has been assessed in hospital and is to have biopsies followed by surgery.
On 17 September 2016, Christian teenager Nabeel Masih from Punjab’s Kasur district, 50 km southwest of Lahore, was accused of liking and sharing a Facebook post that defamed and disrespected the Kaaba in Mecca. His accuser Akhtar Ali said that he and some friends were looking at Facebook profiles when they discovered a picture on Nabeel’s timeline that depicted the Kaaba with a pig on top.
The Kaaba is the building at the centre of Islam’s most sacred mosque in Mecca and is the holiest Muslim site in the world. Said in the Quran to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael, its name is Arabic for cube.
Akhtar Ali filed a blasphemy accusation against Nabeel at Phoolnagar Police Station. He stated: “I was with my friends… We took our friend Waqar’s mobile phone and started seeing pictures of his various friends on Facebook. But when we opened Nabeel Masih’s profile, there was a picture posted in which the Kaaba is defamed and disrespected. Seeing that picture, our religious feelings were hurt.”
Following the accusation, local mosques broadcast calls for Nabeel to be killed and a mob of over 1,000 Islamists gathered and threatened to lynch his family at their home in the village of Dina Nath.
On 18 September, police raided Nabeel’s home and arrested him on a charge of committing blasphemy under Section 295-A of Pakistan’s Penal Code. They took him to the local police station, where they allegedly beat him to extract a confession.
Station House Officer Shahbaz Ahmad Dogar claimed it was necessary to register a case against Nabeel for the safety of the people and of the accused and said police sent Nabeel to Judicial Remand immediately to protect him from extra-judicial killing. Police had the image in question taken down from Facebook.
Many local Christians, including Nabeel’s family, fled the village for fear of Islamist violence. When they returned a few days later, many found that their properties had been looted. Nabeel’s family was unable to return for security reasons and went into hiding.
Commenting on the case, defence lawyer Riaz Anjum from human rights group Pakistan for All stated, “The case against Nabeel is clearly fabricated, as he is an illiterate and does not know how to use social media. The Facebook account in his name was made by his Muslim friends, and they used it to post pictures on the timeline without his consent.”
At an Appeal Court appearance on 3 October 2016, lawyers for Nabeel (pictured attending the hearing) reported being intimidated by the complainant’s supporters – Aneeqa Maria Anthony, head of the legal team representing Nabeel, said a lawyer for the complainant told her to “watch herself and stay away” and also said that about eighty people protested at the hearing and threatened Nabeel’s family. The hearing was held in Kasur’s Pattoki city, 80 km from Lahore, and the lawyer said she would apply to get the case heard in Lahore, where her legal team and Nabeel’s family would feel safer.
Lawyer Riaz Anjum applied for bail, arguing that Nabeel should be released as he was a minor with no prior convictions; in his application, he submitted that the case against Nabeel had been registered with “malafide intention” and “ulterior motives“. However, on 7 February 2017 Judge Muhammad Imran of the local magistrate’s court in Kasur rejected the application for bail.
The decision was appealed to the District and Session Court, where on 5 May 2017 Judge Naveed Iqbal also refused bail, saying Nabeel had committed a “heinous and odious act by defiling the religious feelings of Muslims and their holy place of worship”. (Naveed Iqbal was the judge who convicted Asia Bibi of blasphemy in 2010 and sentenced her to death.)
On 7 February 2018 Nabeel was again refused bail, and on 17 May 2018 Judge Naveed Iqbal sentenced Nabeel to ten years in prison. His lawyer lodged an appeal with the Supreme Court in Lahore.
Before Nabeel’s arrest, he worked in a factory with his father and brother. Since his arrest he has been held in solitary confinement in a tiny cell with no window or ventilation in Kasur District Jail. He is reportedly devastated over his ongoing imprisonment and feels that his life is slipping away, but spends time praying.
Following a prison visit in August 2019, British Pakistani Christian Association representative Mehwish Bhatti (pictured with Nabeel’s father Amanat and brother Wakeel) reported that Nabeel had told her, “I know God does everything as per His plan and one day I will be free – till then I am reading my Urdu Bible, which I have learnt to read whilst in prison – it provides me with great solace.”
Nabeel had to leave school early to help support his family, leaving him illiterate, but Mehwish encouraged him and helped him to understand his Bible.
On 18 March 2021, Nabeel was released on bail, reunited with his family and taken to a place of safety while his lawyers work to have him acquitted.
Nabeel’s family had to go into hiding for security reasons after he was accused of blasphemy. His widowed father Amanat Masih (66) and elder brother Wakeel Masih (23) were also factory workers at the time of his arrest, but his father has retired and Wakeel is now the sole provider for the family. As a day labourer, Wakeel loses income whenever he takes time off to visit the prison (he is allowed a half-hour visit on Fridays) or for court appearances, which are frequently postponed. Nabeel also has four sisters.
Nabeel’s family is reported to be extremely poor but has been receiving support from the British Pakistani Christian Association in the form of financial and legal aid and the provision of water facilities and a toilet at the secret location where they live. Amanat suffers from asthma and had been struggling to fetch water.
17 September 2016 Akhtar Ali accused Nabeel Masih of liking and sharing a Facebook post that defamed and disrespected the Kaaba in Mecca. He filed a blasphemy accusation against Nabeel at Phoolnagar Police Station. Mosques broadcast calls for Nabeel to be killed and a mob gathered and threatened to lynch his family at their home.
18 September 2016 Police raided Nabeel’s home and arrested him on a charge of committing blasphemy under Section 295-A of Pakistan’s Penal Code. They took him to the local police station, where they allegedly beat him to extract a confession before sending him to Judicial Remand.
3 October 2016 At an Appeal Court appearance in Pattoki, Nabeel’s lawyers reported being intimidated by the complainant’s supporters. About eighty people protested at the hearing and threatened Nabeel’s family.
7 February 2017 Judge Muhammad Imran of the local magistrate’s court in Kasur rejected an application for bail.
5 May 2017 Judge Naveed Iqbal of the District and Session Court refused bail.
7 February 2018 Nabeel was again refused bail.
17 May 2018 At Kasur Magistrates Court, Judge Naveed Iqbal sentenced Nabeel to ten years in prison.
1 March 2021 Lahore High Court Judge Javaid Gaddal ordered that Nabeel be released on bail because there is no evidence that he committed the crime. Nabeel’s lawyer Naseeb Anjum commented, “Freedom for Nabeel Masih is only the first battle. Now we must pursue a full acquittal and I am confident we will succeed.” The British Pakistani Christian Association, which hired Christian lawyer Naseeb Anjum to advocate for Nabeel, explained the decision to seek bail before beginning the longer process of seeking full acquittal: “We reasoned that the quicker process of a bail application would enable Nabeel to be freed from his incarceration sooner, enabling him to tackle his suicidal depression and face the challenge of a long battle for exoneration in a position of strength.”
18 March 2021 Nabeel was released on bail and was taken to a place of safety, while his lawyers work to get him acquitted. He hopes to start a new life abroad, safe from extremist attacks. Prison authorities denied Nabeel medical treatment for large, painful lipomas he developed while incarcerated, but since his release he has been assessed in hospital and is to have biopsies followed by surgery.
Read more about the persecution of Christians in Pakistan.
(British Pakistani Christian Association, Christian Post, Daily Times, Gospel Herald, International Christian Concern, Pakistani Christian Post, Voice Society, World Watch Monitor)