In what might be a first-ever, a Pakistani lower court in mid-January acquitted a Christian of blasphemy after a three year trial – for lack of evidence against him. However, before his arrest on the false charge, Pervaiz Masih’s wife was brutally tortured by the police as they sought to find out where he was, as was his brother-in-law. Masih’s wife’s back was broken, leaving her unable to leave her bed. He also believes his wife Zareena’s incapacity led to the drowning of his three-and-a-half year old daughter; she was unable to keep watch over the toddler.
The family has been living away from their home since August 2015 (when Masih’s ‘blasphemy’ was alleged to have happened). Since then Masih cannot go back to their village for fear of his life; he’s now deep in debt at a remote brick kiln, and cannot pay for medical treatment for Zareena.
Masih and his family are completely devastated and left in fear, despair and hopelessness – despite the fact that, on 15 January, he was told he could go free, as the Kasur Session Court in the Punjab Province could not find enough evidence that he had insulted the Prophet Mohammad during a dispute with a Muslim businessman.
The acquittal by a lower court is unusual. Most leave blasphemy decisions to a higher court, as with the case of Asia Bibi which went all the way to the Supreme Court before being thrown out for
“Because of threats from hardliners, lower courts pass their responsibility to the higher court and then it takes years to prove the accused innocent,” the director of the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS-UK), Nasir Saeed said in December following the death sentence for two Christian brothers for alleged blasphemy.
How did Masih get accused of ‘blasphemy’?
On August 15, 2015, Masih, a resident of village Garhaywala in Kasur district, was hired by a businessman, Haji Jamshed – with six other laborers – to fill seven trucks with sand from a nearby dried-up canal. Each was to receive 2,500 Pakistani rupees (roughly $25 in 2015).
“When we were done with loading sand in the seventh truck, the supervisor Muhammad Ejaz Sheikh gave each of us 1,500 rupees (roughly US$15),” Masih told World Watch Monitor from an undisclosed location.
“I argued with Ejaz that this is the earning of our sweat and hard labor, so he should give what was mutually agreed. He told me to remain quiet and said I would be given the full amount, but I said that each of us should get the full agreed amount and my stance really irritated Ejaz.”
At the time, World Watch Monitor contacted senior police officers at the Mandi Usmanwala Police Station in Kasur to ascertain what exactly happened that meant local residents flared up against Masih. Back then, Masih’s brother-in-law Shamoun personally told World Watch Monitor: “Working in the scorching heat, the workers decided to take some rest. One was repeatedly listening to a religious sermon on a cell phone, at which Parvaiz suggested they all get back to work. But after the work was done, they wanted to pay him less than had been mutually agreed.”
So there was some religious discussion before the argument over pay. However, later the whole argument was reported as a ‘religious’ one.
“When we got back to the village, the news was spread that I spoke against Islam – which was untrue. But four of my co-workers assured everyone that no such indecent remark was spoken by me,” Masih recounted recently to WWM.
In most places, Pakistani Christians’ houses are outside the main village (due to pre-Partition residential arrangements for low castes). However, as urbanization creates new roads, formerly un-important locations become expensive; they’re now right next to new roads.
The Christians of Garhaywala have about 20 houses on the roadside which could be used for commercial activities. A local shopkeeper Muhammad Sajid had earlier requested Christians to rent a shop to him, but they had refused.
“For many days, there’d not been an issue in [Masih’s] village. Most of the villagers initially did not buy this accusation [of blasphemy] against him, but the issue was mainly whipped up by a shopkeeper,” Shamoun told WWM back then.
That night all the Christians fled from their roadside houses, as Sajid had planned.
Two weeks later, on August 31, at least 200 irate men, led by Sajid, smashed down Masih’s gate, demanding that he be handed over so they could hang him.
“Two local Muslims, Chaudhry Majeed Kamboh and Sardar Intizar Dogar, however, told them that they could approach or harm the Christians only over their [Kamboh and Dogar’s] dead bodies, after which no one came near them,” said Masih.
“I had, days before, gone to my in-laws for work and I didn’t know what was taking place back in the village. The police arrested my wife and brother-in-law Shamoun and carried out excruciating torture to extract information about my whereabouts. They badly injured Zareena’s backbone. A few hours later, the police raided the brick kiln where I was working.”
“Since then Zareena is bedridden and I have no money to take her to the doctor. I am already under a huge debt, so I don’t know how to get her treated medically,” Masih added.
3 year old daughter drowns as mum can’t run after her
Masih was released on bail in October 2015 (after only 20 days in jail, another potential ‘first’ for Christians charged with blasphemy) and re-started work at the same remote brick kiln where he’d been arrested. “There is a small water [container] – it’s not more than a foot high – at the brick kiln.
“My wife is no more capable of taking care of our children. On that ominous day, she was on the bed and I had gone to work. We did not know when our 3-and-a- half-year-old daughter Anmol went outside close to this water [container]. Only 15 minutes later, a worker went over there to wash his hands and found Anmol dead. It seems unlikely that Anmol could drown in less than a foot of water, but then we don’t have any other evidence to show she was [deliberately] killed.”
Masih’s lawyer Aneeqa Maria, co-ordinator of The Voice Society, told World Watch Monitor that his trial went on for three years with a hearing almost every week. “Now Masih is acquitted but he cannot return to his village as he is still be seen as a ‘blasphemer’.”
The court of Kasur Additional Sessions Judge Ejaz Ahmed Bosal observed that “for the last one year, the complainant has not bothered to appear before the court and has not produced any witness, which shows that [the complainant] has lost his interest to pursue the case … the accused cannot be left at the mercy of the prosecution to face trial for an indefinite period. Hence, it is most appropriate to stop the proceedings of this case and adjourn it sine die”.
Masih’s final word: “They have done wrong to me. But I remain steadfast in Jesus, against all these odds.”
Not first time Kasur Christians suffer on fake ‘blasphemy charges
Kasur is an area where Christians have seen more than enough persecution and discrimination. In November, 2014, a married couple were attacked by a mob of hundreds, who beat them up badly and then threw them into the brick kiln where they worked, so that they were burned alive. Their 10 year old son Suleman witnesses the mob attack and his parents’ murder.
Again, this was after an allegation of blasphemy.
Despite the recent freeing of both Asia Bibi, late in 2018, and Pervaiz Masih this month, it’s believed there are still about 17 Christians in prison either convicted of blasphemy or imprisoned while still on trial. This is thought to be almost half of the approximately 40 prisoners currently held for blasphemy, even though Christians make up only 2% of the population of Pakistan.