At the fifth anniversary of the arson attack on a Christian neighbourhood in the Pakistani city of Lahore, the mother of the Christian man convicted of blaspheming against Islam – and so provoking the attack – says she still prays for his release.
Sawan Masih*, a 30-year-old sanitation worker, was accused by a Muslim friend of making blasphemous remarks against the prophet Muhammad on 9 March 2013, for which he was sentenced to death in 2014. His appeal is still pending.
Following the initial accusation against him, an over 3,000-strong mob descended on Joseph Colony, setting fire to over 150 houses, including the Masih family’s home.
An anti-terrorism court last year acquitted every one of the more than 100 suspects accused of involvement in the attack, but Masih, a father of three, is still being held in the Central Jail in Faisalabad, 140km west of Lahore, awaiting the outcome of his appeal at the Lahore High Court.
His wife and children have moved in with her family. His mother, Billo Bibi, 50, says the authorities are considering moving her son to a jail in Sahiwal, a city even farther away from them. “Travelling to another city was already tough. Now they are sending him farther away,” she told the Catholic news agency UCAN.
“I used to call him Buri. We still pray for his release. My elderly husband has developed breathing complications since his arrest. He does not speak anymore,” she added.
Protests against blasphemy law
On 9 March an annual candlelit vigil in commemoration of the Joseph Colony attack was held, while on the same day protestors gathered in front of the Punjab Assembly in Lahore to protest against misuse of the country’s blasphemy laws.
In an effort to stop the abuse, Pakistan’s Senate Special Committee on Human Rights recommended last week that those who falsely accuse someone of blasphemy should receive the same punishment as those convicted of blasphemy.
There is, however, strong opposition from right-wing political groups against any changes being made to the law.
Critics of the law say it has often been misused to settle personal scores, while procedural “loopholes” have also led to the filing of false charges, as happened in the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row for blasphemy since 2010.
In the case of the attack on Joseph Colony, Pakistan’s Supreme Court has suggested the land on which the colony was set up could be the prime reason it was targeted, because it belonged to the government and is surrounded by huge factory complexes. Weeks before the incident residents had been threatened by a “group from the land mafia in the city’s Misri Shah [scrap] market”, according to the President of Pakistan Minority Front’s Lahore Chapter. “The issue was to move these people so that the scrap market could be extended,” he said shortly after the attack.
*The name ‘Masih’, which derives from ‘Messiah’, has been used for whole Christian communities for many years in Pakistan. Bibi, meanwhile, is a respectful term for a married or older woman in Pakistan and other parts of South Asia.