A Pakistani Christian could face 10 years in jail or even the death sentence after torn pages from a copy of the Qur’an were found outside his home, with his name written on them.
Babu Shahbaz Masih, 40, from the Kamahan district of Lahore, was arrested on 30 December after a Muslim resident reported him to the police.
Masih’s elder brother, George, a local councillor and grocer, told World Watch Monitor the police also initially arrested Shahbaz’s wife and children, telling them they had been taken into custody for their safety.
George Masih, who owns the grocery shop and small piece of land adjacent to it, said his family have had a long-running dispute with the complainant, Hajji Nadeem, who allegedly “had his eye on the land”.
A local human rights activist told World Watch Monitor: “The land is a corner plot, so it has business value. Local people say that Hajji had long had an eye on this small piece of land. Realising this as a potential danger, Masih had dedicated the land to the church. Hajji was jeered by some villagers afterwards. They laughed at his failure [to acquire the land], which incited him and so he sought every possible way to avenge this insult.”
George Masih added: “Because Babu had acquired reputation as a faith healer, local Muslims also used to visit him, which was unacceptable to many local Muslims.
“Hajji started spreading word that Shahbaz had disrespectfully pulled his beard, which he wears because of the tradition of the Prophet, and thereby insulted the Prophet”.
The activist said the evidence against Babu Masih was “unconvincing” but that, although the “situation in the area has come under control, Babu’s future is bleak because, even if the court acquitted him due to lack of evidence, he would never be able to return to this place for fear of his life.”
Protests follow blasphemy accusations against prominent Muslims
Meanwhile, two prominent Muslims – former cricket star Imran Khan and Shaan Taseer, the son of the Punjab governor assassinated in 2011 for the “blasphemy” of criticising the blasphemy laws – have faced angry accusations from Pakistani Islamists, following comments perceived as “insulting” to Islam and its prophet.
Taseer, the son of murdered governor Salman Taseer, was reported to police for “hate speech” after also criticising Pakistan’s blasphemy laws during a filmed Christmas message shared via social media. Taseer also expressed solidarity with Asia Bibi, the Christian woman on death row for more than seven years for her “blasphemy”. His father’s support of Bibi was thought to be another reason for his assassination by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, who was subsequently executed.
Qadri has been hailed by some Pakistani Muslims as the most revered figure in recent history. A large shrine is under construction in his memory.
On 4 January, violent clashes erupted between police and Islamists celebrating the six-year anniversary of Taseer’s murder. The protest was also seen as a reaction to Imran Khan’s comments. The rally was titled “Islam Bachao”, which means “Save Islam”. Khan issued a public apology after demands from Tehreek Labbaik Ya-Rasool Allah, a group dedicated to safeguarding Muhammad’s finality.
Leading Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported that over 150 people were arrested for participating in the rally. The protestors had clashed with police when they were prevented from marching towards the governor’s former residence, where an annual vigil was taking place to mark his death.
New report on blasphemy laws
Meanwhile, in a new report, Amnesty International says Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are “incompatible” with international human rights.
“The majority of blasphemy cases are based on false accusations stemming from property issues or other personal or family vendettas, rather than genuine instances of blasphemy, and they inevitably lead to mob violence against the entire community,” according to the report, ‘As Good As Dead: The Impact of The Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan’.
The report also recommends that the police should be able to register cases only if there is sufficient evidence.
However, it notes that “in some cases, police have even arbitrarily detained family members as an attempt to locate the accused when he or she could not be found”.
The police, according to the report, are faced “with pressure from religious clerics and their supporters”, so, in order to avert this pressure, they quickly register and “forward a case to the prosecutor on the basis of insubstantial evidence”. The accused then “undergo a gruelling trial” during their detention.