A court in Pakistan has acquitted a Christian after he was sentenced to life in prison for blasphemy over a decade ago.
On 15th December, the Lahore High Court cleared Imran Ghafur Masih of all charges, which stemmed from false allegations over the burning of a book.
Masih's family reacted to the news with joy: "It is a day of resurrection for us,” Naveed Masih, Imran’s brother, told International Christian Concern. “God has heard our cry and we are very thankful to him. It’s a Christmas gift for us.”
The situation that landed Imran in prison for so long occurred when he was cleaning his family's bookshop in Hajweri town, located in Faisalabad, back in 2009.
He was about to burn some rubbish he had collected, which included some old books and papers, when he came across a book that contained Arabic writing. Worried that it might be religious in nature, Imran asked his Muslim neighbour, Hajji Liaquat Ali, for help. Ali told Imran to burn the book, so he threw it in the fire and didn't think anything more of it. However, after it had partially burned, Ali pulled it ou the fire and used the item to falsely accuse Imran of decimating the Quran.
News of the situation soon spread and local mosques began making announcements over their PA systems. Soon afterwards, a mob of roughly 400 Muslims gathered at Imran’s home. They beat Imran, his brother, Naveed, and father, Ghafur, before throwing paraffin on them and attempting to burn them alive.
Local police intervened, arrested Imran, and escorted him to the police station. A mob of 1,000 quickly gathered outside of the police station and demanded Imran be handed over to them. "Hang him who disgraces the Holy Quran," they reportedly chanted. "Christians are dogs. Imran is a dog."
Police charged Imran with blasphemy and distributed the charge sheet to the mob in a bid to reassure them.
On 11th January 2010, the Sessions Court of Faisalabad sentenced Imran to life in prison and fined him 100,000 rupees for violating Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Over the next decade, Imran had his appeal hearings delayed 70 times.
“We went through a very painful time during Imran’s imprisonment," Naveed told ICC. “Imran lost his parents and was not allowed to attend the funeral. We lost our business and jobs which has affected our children’s education and future. We have not seen any happiness during these years.”
False accusations of blasphemy are a common occurrence in Pakistan and can result in mass protests, mob lynchings and even murder; at least 24 Christians are currently imprisoned for the crime.
In response to the acquittal, ICC’s regional manager for South Asia, William Stark, said: “We here at International Christian Concern are happy to see Imran Masih finally acquitted and released after more than 10 years in prison. It is great to see such a prolonged blasphemy case justly resolved at the High Court level in Pakistan.
"However, we remain deeply concerned for the safety of Imran and his family. Extremists in Pakistan are known to target individuals accused of religious crimes, like blasphemy, even after 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 minorities. Without reform, religious minorities will continue to face false blasphemy accusations and the violence that often accompanies these accusations.”