By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent
LAHORE, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife )– A Christian man who spent more than three years in a Pakistani jail on “false charges of blasphemy against Islam” was hiding with his family in Pakistan’s Punjab province Tuesday, December 27, after police briefly detained him again, a friend and human rights official told BosNewsLife.
Amanat Masih, 50, was arrested on Christmas Day while visiting his local church, explained Farrukh H. Saif, the executive director of the Lahore-based World Vision In Progress foundation (WVIP), a major advocacy group.
“After nine hours of efforts by WVIP lawyers we were able to get him out of the police station in [the city of]Sheikhupura,” northwest of the provincial capital Lahore, he added.
“Lawyers have proven that the complainer is falsely accusing him again.” Police released him via “a back door” because there were “hundreds of Muslims waiting outside of the police station,” Saif told BosNewsLife in an interview.
He said Masih, an impoverished worker, was moved to a safe location along with his wife and seven children. However, “Now we have again to move him…We are also looking forward to relocate him to some safer country where he can start his new life” with his family, Saif said.
Masih’s latest detention came a year after he was released from prison. He was previously behind bars from March 2007 till December 2010 on charges of blasphemy after he allegedly burned pages of the Koran, deemed a holy book by Muslims.
The Christian man always denied the charges and was eventually acquitted by the Lahore High Court in December 2010. “It was a difficult time when police nearly tortured him to death,” recalled Saif.
Additionally, his family’s house was burned down and more recently, in October, one his daughters and son-in-law were kidnapped and forced to “convert” to Islam, added Saif, who has close knowledge about the situation. “The whole family suffers. His wife and children are also persecuted.”
Masih’s case is no exception. Over the Christmas holiday news amerged that a young man was charged with desecrating the Koran under Pakistan’s controversial “blasphemy” laws. The 23-year-old Khuram Masih, who is not related, was detained December 5 in Shahdara Town, near Lahore, after an argument over rent with a Muslim land lord, Christians said.
His landlord, who was identified as Zulfiqar Ali, allegedly accused him of burning pages of the Koran to prepare tea, charges Masih strongly denied, his attorneys said.
Masih appeared in court on Saturday, December 24, but the judge did not appear, said the Community Development Initiative (CDI), an affiliate of the European Centre for Law and Justice organization.
NEW TRIAL DATE
A trial date was scheduled for January 7, with a bail hearing set for January 3.
Christians have also reported some more positive news saying a judge this month granted bail to a Christian woman falsely charged with theft in the town of Abbottabad after police failed to produce evidence. Salma Emmanuel, 30, was freed on bail on December 8, after she and her husband said they were severely beaten for three days when they refused to confess. She was taken to a hospital in critical condition on November 7, amid fears her unborn child would die.
Yet, Christians are also held in other prisons in Pakistan. “We [are working on] 13 cases of blasphemy…and 26 cases of forceful conversions,” explained WVIP official Saif.
Rights groups have urged Pakistan to change or overturn the blasphemy legislation, which they say has been msused for personal grudges.
Among others held is Asia Bibi, 46, who was spending a third Christmas separated from her family as she awaits anappeal against plans to execute her by hanging for “blasphemy”, said Barnabas Fund, an advocacy group assisting her family is held in the high security District Jail Seikhupura, some 35 kilometers (22 miles) northwest of Lahore, the capital of Punjab province.
“Defiling the name of Muhammad” carries a mandatory death penalty in Pakistan, although that is often turned into long prison sentences by authorities. Several Christians under blasphemy investigation are known to have been killed in and outside prisons by militants, or their supporters.
The Special Adviser to the Pakistani Prime Minister for National Harmony, Paul Bhatti, has suggested that the government is working on legislation that would “protect all minorities” including Christians, who comprise less than 5 percent of the Asian nation’s mainly Muslim population of 188 million people.
Yet changes to the blasphemy legislation are opposed by militants, who this year claimed to have assassinated two key politicians who criticized the law, including Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti.