Sawan Masih (41), a Christian street sweeper and father of three from the city of Lahore in Pakistan, was imprisoned in March 2013 and sentenced to death for blasphemy in March 2014. Sawan’s appeal hearing was adjourned at least 16 times, but on 5 October 2020 Sawan was finally acquitted in Lahore High Court, and he was released ten days later.
LATEST NEWS (15 October 2020): Sawan was released from prison and is with his family in a secret location for their safety. He was acquitted in Lahore High Court on 5 October but his release was delayed while the judge wrote up the full judgement.
Sawan comes from the predominantly Christian Joseph Colony in the Punjab capital Lahore, where most of the Christians are poor, menial labourers, many of them sanitation workers. His Muslim friend Shahid Imran accused him of insulting the Prophet Mohammed during a conversation in March 2013, during which Sawan allegedly told his friend, “My Jesus is genuine. He is Son of Allah. He will return while your Prophet is false. My Jesus is true and will give salvation.”
The day after the conversation, Shahid Imran claimed that Sawan had blasphemed against the Prophet Mohammed. Press reports said a mosque broadcast the accusation via loudspeakers, and local Muslim factory workers went on strike for Sawan’s arrest. A mob of more than 3,000 angry Muslims attacked Sawan’s home and looted and torched 180 Christian homes, 75 shops and at least two churches. Hundreds of families were displaced – the mob threatened to burn Christians in their homes unless they left, so they all fled. Sawan was handed over to the police and was imprisoned.
Joseph Colony residents and Christian rights activists claimed that a local politician from Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz played a central role in the attack to facilitate a land-grab by local factory owners who supported him.
Sawan’s trial was held in prison due to security concerns. In his court statement, he said he had not committed blasphemy and accused Shahid Imran, the complainant, of involving him in a fake case as part of a plot by local businessmen to use blasphemy allegations to drive Christians from Joseph Colony so they could seize it for industrial use. “They hatched a conspiracy to push out the residents of the colony,” he told the court. “They contrived a case and got it filed by a person who was close to me. I am innocent.” Judge Chaudhry Ghulam Murtaza sentenced Sawan to death and fined him 200,000 Pakistani Rupees (approximately €1,500).
Rights groups and lawyers criticised the death sentence and said the case for the blasphemy conviction was weak. Sawan’s chief lawyer Naeem Shakir said the conviction was not based on justice. Tahir Bashir, another lawyer on Sawan’s defence panel, said he believed the judge had convicted his client under pressure from local Muslim political and religious groups.
Sawan’s appeal was adjourned repeatedly by the Lahore High Court, but he was eventually acquitted in October 2020 and joined his family in a secret location for their security. He had been in prison for over seven and a half years.
Joseph Colony suspects acquitted
On 29 January 2017, an anti-terrorism court in Lahore acquitted all 115 suspects who had been accused of participation in the attack on Joseph Colony, due to lack of evidence.
Anti-terrorism judge Chaudhry Muhammad Azam acquitted the suspects after prosecution witnesses said they were not the ones responsible. He ordered all charges to be dropped despite strong evidence against the suspects, including video footage of the attack. All the suspects were already out on bail.
While Sawan was in prison, his wife Sobia and their three children – daughter Noor (17), son Saim (15) and daughter Rebecca (13) – lived in a single room in the home of Sobia’s parents in Joseph Colony, Lahore. Sobia had a part-time job with very low pay and visited her husband once a month, although it is a long, expensive journey from Lahore to Faisalabad, bringing food and clothing. The family is now together in hiding.
On the day of the Joseph Colony attack, Muslims stoned Sawan’s house after Friday prayers and brutally beat his elderly father, who developed breathing complications following Sawan’s arrest and stopped speaking. He died on 15 October 2020, the day his son was released, and Sawan could not attend the funeral or visit his grieving mother because of extremist threats against him.
8 March 2013 Sawan Masih was accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammed during a conversation with a Muslim friend. Sawan was handed over to the police.
9 March 2013 More than 3,000 angry Muslims attacked the predominantly Christian Joseph Colony where Sawan lived, looting and torching 180 Christian homes, 75 shops and at least two churches. Hundreds of families were displaced.
27 March 2014 Sawan was convicted of blasphemy. Judge Chaudhry Ghulam Murtaza sentenced him to death and fined him 200,000 Pakistani Rupees (approximately €1,500). Sawan’s appeal against the conviction was lodged within seven days in Lahore High Court.
29 January 2017 An Anti-Terrorism Court in Lahore acquitted 115 suspects who had been accused of participation in the attack on Joseph Colony.
8 May 2018 An appeal hearing scheduled to come before the Divisional Bench of Lahore High Court was cancelled because the judges did not show up.
24 October 2018 A scheduled hearing of Sawan’s case was adjourned.
27 November 2018 Sawan’s case was scheduled to be heard but was not, due to the non-availability of the complainant’s counsel. The case was rescheduled for 18 December 2018.
18 December 2018 The complainant again requested an adjournment, which the court allowed with the direction that next time no adjournment would be given to the complaint. The case was fixed for 28 January 2019.
28 January 2019 The judge did not appear. A new court date was set for 27 February 2019.
27 February 2019 Sawan’s appeal hearing was postponed again. It was left over due to the hearing of other cases, and a new date of 20 March 2019 was set. It did not take place on that date, however, and was rescheduled for 3 April.
3 April 2019 Sawan’s case was adjourned due to the non-availability of a judge of the Divisional Bench of Lahore High Court.
22 April 2019 An appeal hearing was scheduled, but the complainant’s lawyer did not appear in the court and the complainant submitted an application for adjournment.
May 2019 A date of 12 June was set for Sawan’s appeal hearing.
12 June 2019 The high court judges did not hear Sawan’s appeal. They ordered that the Attorney General be present in the court instead of the deputy Attorney General and the hearing was rescheduled for 24 June.
24 June 2019 The Attorney General did not turn up for Sawan’s appeal hearing and the judge adjourned the case for the seventh time, until 17 September.
17 September 2019 Sawan’s appeal hearing took place in the Lahore High Court but the judge, Justice Mazhar Ali Akbar Naqvi, referred the case to the Anti-Terrorism court (ATC). Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported that during proceedings, Sawan’s lawyer argued that the case had been referred to the ATC once before, where the presiding judge had refused to hear it and reverted it to the high court. Justice Navqi insisted that the case would have to go to the ATC and said he would only hear a high court appeal if the ATC judge again decided not to hear the case.
13 November 2019 Chief Justice Mr Sardar Shamim Khan of Lahore High Court had decided to hear Sawan’s case himself on 13 November but he was busy with other cases and adjourned Sawan’s case, promising to hear it on 27 November 2019.
27 November 2019 At Sawan’s court hearing, the court issued notice of a further court hearing for “final arguments” on 12 December 2019.
12 December 2019 The court hearing was adjourned because the Chief Justice of Lahore High Court was away in another town and not available to preside; he has since retired. No new date was set.
January 2020 A new date of 22 January 2020 was set for final arguments in Sawan’s case to be heard in Lahore High Court, but later in the month the date was changed to 13 February. The case will be heard in the court of Mr Justice Muhammad Tariq Abbasi.
13 February 2020 Sawan’s court hearing was adjourned and is not expected to be rescheduled until after the Covid-19 pandemic, which has shut down Pakistan’s courts. Sobia visited Sawan in February and reported that “he is ok”.
28 September 2020 Sawan’s case was due to be heard on 28 September but Senior Judge Sayeed Shehbaz Ali Rizvi went on leave and the hearing of the divisional bench was cancelled. The office of Lahore High Court will reschedule the hearing.
2 October 2020 The appeal hearing for the remaining final arguments was rescheduled for 5 October.
5 October 2020 Sawan was acquitted in Lahore High Court.
15 October 2020 Sawan was released from prison and joined his family in a secret location for their safety. His release had been delayed while the judge wrote up the full judgement.
(Amnesty International/Barnabas/Christian Solidarity Worldwide/CLAAS-UK/Morning Star News/Pakistan Christian Post/World Watch Monitor)