May 31, 2023
A 22-year-old Christian youth in Bahawalpur was sentenced to death by a Sessions court on Tuesday, May 30, on charges of blasphemy.
Noman Masih was found guilty by the court, of blaspheming against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes, which imposes a mandatory death sentence.
Despite the conclusion of the jail trial in January, the verdict was repeatedly delayed for five months on various pretexts. Masih’s lawyer, Advocate Lazar Allah Rakha expressed deep disappointment with the conviction, citing the lack of substantive evidence against his client. “Additionally, none of the witnesses presented by the police could corroborate the blasphemy allegations,” he said.
The counsel raised concerns about the contradictions within the case and questioned the rationale behind the death sentence pronounced by Bahawalpur Additional Sessions Judge Muhammad Hafeez Ur Rehman Khan.
The defense plans to challenge Noman’s conviction in the Bahawalpur Bench of the Lahore High Court as soon as the detailed order is released.
Meanwhile, Noman’s father, Asghar Masih, a sanitation worker, expressed shock at the verdict. He disputed the police’s claim that Noman was arrested in July 2019 and that he was taken into custody during a late-night raid that occurred hours after his cousin, Sunny Waqas, was apprehended by Bahawalnagar police, on a blasphemy charge on June 29, 2019.
According to Asghar, both the FIRs filed against Noman and Sunny were baseless. He revealed that Noman was asleep at home when he was arrested, contrary to the police’s allegation that he was in a park at 3:30 am, showing blasphemous images to a group of people.
Since Noman’s arrest, the family has been going through many challenges, said Asghar. “The past four years have been incredibly challenging for our family, both emotionally and financially,” he said.
Asghar, who works as a shop cleaner, struggles to manage household expenses with his meager salary. Noman’s incarceration has resulted in significant debt due to the expenses incurred during each visit to the jail.
According to details provided by the family and the defense lawyer, the cases against Noman Masih and Sunny Waqas were initiated based on “secret information” provided to the police in their respective districts.
FIR No. 359/19, registered with the Faqirwali Police Station in Bahawalnagar on June 29, 2019, claimed that Sunny had printed blasphemous sketches of the Prophet and was carrying them in a black bag to show others. Allegedly, during questioning, Sunny also implicated his cousin Noman, accusing him of sharing the alleged sacrilegious images on WhatsApp. As a result, Sunny was taken into custody and charged with blasphemy, while Noman was arrested by Bahawalpur police on July 1, 2019.
However Sunny Waqas was granted bail by the Bahawalpur Bench of the Lahore High Court on January 17, he was released from prison on February 3, as raising the exorbitant bail bond of 4 million rupees proved to be extremely challenging. The maximum amount for bail under Section 295-C is 500,000 rupees. The judge had granted bail because the trial against Sunny had not concluded within the mandatory two-year period.
Data collected by the Center for Social Justice (CSJ) and People’s Commission for Minorities Rights (PCMR) reveals a troubling surge in blasphemy cases in Pakistan.
Between January 1 and May 10, 2023, a total of 57 cases of alleged blasphemy were reported. Out of these cases, four blasphemy suspects were victims of lynching or extrajudicial killings.
The data shows a distribution of reported cases across different regions in Pakistan. Punjab had the highest number of cases, with 28 reported incidents. Sindh followed with 16 cases, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with eight cases, and Azad Jammu and Kashmir with five cases.
According to the Center for Research and Security Studies, 1,415 people were accused of blasphemy in Pakistan between 1947 and 2021. 81 of them were killed extrajudicially.
The rise in blasphemy accusations and the subsequent violence is a matter of grave concern. False allegations and the absence of proper legal safeguards have resulted in tragic consequences for innocent individuals. The misuse of blasphemy laws and the lack of protection for religious minorities remain persistent issues in Pakistan’s legal system.