The Lahore High Court has released a 20-year-old Christian on bail two years after his conviction under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. He was charged for allegedly posting a sacrilegious photograph on social media, his lawyer said.
Incarcerated since his arrest in 2016, Nabeel Masih became the youngest person to be charged with blasphemy in Pakistan at age 16 when a Muslim friend accused him of “sharing” and “liking” on Facebook an allegedly blasphemous photo of the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Consequently, in 2018 he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Under his current bail terms, Masih’s sentence is suspended and he remains free until there is a ruling on his appeal. If the Lahore High Court upholds the trial court’s verdict, he’ll be sent back to prison to complete his sentence.
His attorney, Naseeb Anjum, said the trial court in Kasur District had convicted the youth although there were no witnesses against him. Anjum said the court also ignored the fact that the case was registered two days after the alleged photo appeared.
“The delay in registration of the case showed that Masih was accused only after deliberation and consultation,” Anjum said, adding that police had removed the image from Facebook soon after registering the First Information Report, complicating procedures to determine guilt or innocence.
On Monday (March 1) the Lahore High Court accepted arguments for Masih’s post-conviction bail, a partial legal victory, Anjum said.
“I will continue this legal fight for his acquittal,” he added.
In an interview with aid and advocacy group Christian Solidarity International’s Pakistan partner last year, Masih said he prayed constantly for his release, and that he didn’t know his accusers well.
“But I still remember today that a large crowd broke into our house, accompanied by police,” Masih told CSI’s partner. “I still have shivers. I can’t forget how my dad and siblings cried begging them not to take me. I also remember the threats from the attackers.”
False accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan are common and often motivated by personal vendettas or religious hatred. The highly inflammatory accusations have the potential to spark mob lynchings, vigilante murders and mass protests.
Many of the people accused of blasphemy never reach the courtroom. Also, violence has killed 62 accused people since 1990, with few prosecutions. Lawyers defending those charged with blasphemy, presiding judges and individuals speaking against the law are also targeted.
Pakistan ranked fifth on Christian support organization Open Doors 2021 World Watch list of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.