A Christian man who was sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy has been acquitted by a court in Pakistan. Lahore High Court overturned Sawan Masih's conviction on Tuesday and ordered his immediate release, citing a lack of evidence.
In March 2014, Masih was convicted under Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws and sentenced to death after being accused by his Muslim friend, Muhammad Shahid, of insulting the Prophet Muhammad during a conversation.
According to Shahid, Masih said to his friend, “My Jesus is genuine. He is the Son of Allah. He will return while your Prophet is false. My Jesus is true and will give salvation".
The day after the alleged incident, a mob of around 3,000 Muslims attacked the Christian neighbourhood of Joseph Colony, looting and burning roughly 180 Christian homes, 75 shops, and at least two churches. Masih was taken into police custody and later charged under Section 295-C of Pakistan's Penal Code.
He was later sentenced to death by Judge Chaudhry Ghulam Murtaza, with the trial being held in the Lahore Camp Jail due to security concerns.
Masih's lawyers claimed a number of inaccuracies in the case, including glaring contradictions within the police report, called a 'First Information Report (FIR)' and inconsistencies in the testimony made by the complainant.
As a result, the Lahore High Court ruled that the prosecution had failed to establish that Masih had committed blasphemy and acquitted him of all charges.
Responding to the ruling, International Christian Concern's Regional Manager for South Asia William Stark said: “We here at International Christian Concern are happy to see Sawan Masih finally acquitted and released after six long years in prison. It is rare to see such a high profile blasphemy case against a Christian justly resolved at the High Court level in Pakistan. However, we remain deeply concerned for the safety of Sawan and his family. Extremists in Pakistan are known to target individuals accused of religious crimes, like blasphemy, even if they have been acquitted.
"The abuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws must be curbed and false allegations must be rooted out and punished. Too often these laws have been a tool in the hands of extremists seeking to stir up religiously motivated violence against minority communities. Without real reform, religious minorities, including Christians, will face more false blasphemy accusations and the extreme violence that often accompanies these accusations.”