Mirpur Khas, Sindh, Pakistan (frames-wallpapers.blogspot.com)

Mentally impaired Yaqoob Bashir Masih was only 20 years old when he was accused of committing blasphemy in June 2015. He has been in prison ever since, and now his hometown District and Sessions Court in Mirpur Khas, a small district in Pakistan’s Sindh province, has sentenced him to life-long imprisonment for burning a booklet that contained verses of the Quran.

According to International Christian Concern, two appeals from the family to release him on bail were filed, but the trial court and later the Sindh High Court rejected them.

Masih, locally known by the name “Kala”, is known to have learning difficulties. After he was charged, Mushtaq Masih*, Yaqoob’s next-door neighbour in the Mehmoodabad area, told World Watch Monitor what happened:

“It was around 7pm and I was sitting with my wife on our camel cart. We were discussing how earning our daily living had become so tough when we started hearing the noise of a group of a people.

“I heard Yaqoob’s elder brother asking him, ‘Where is the copy of the Quran which the cleric gave you this morning?’

“Yaqoob was not telling them, and he kept naming a few other neighbours. The mob were severely beating him, but Yaqoob did not tell them where the Quran was. In the end, some of them doused him with kerosene oil and told him that they would set him on fire if he would not tell them. Then he told them that he had burned it in the morning and then buried it.”

Some locals reported that “Yaqoob used to go to the cleric, who had told him that his mental condition would improve if he recited the Quran”.

Mushtaq Masih went on: “That morning Yaqoob requested the cleric to give him the copy of the Quran, saying that his two sisters would read it to him. But rather than bringing it home, he burned it.”

It was reported that a few students of a nearby madrassah (an Islamic seminary) had seen him burning the Quran, after which they informed a cleric.

Mushtaq Masih explained: “About two years ago Yaqoob had started learning ‘black magic’ and, since then, he sometimes acted quite erratically. Most of the time he was fine but sometimes he behaved as if he had no control over himself.

“For instance, his mother told the crowd that only three days before the incident, Yaqoob had torn the Bible into four pieces and thrown it on the floor.

“The police were informed of Yaqoob’s confession and they arrived to arrest him. But still a mob was gathering.”

In Pakistan, blasphemy against Islam is an extremely sensitive subject, with allegations often leading to mob violence. For this reason, even police officers fear reprisals for investigating blasphemy cases, or judges for finding in favour of those accused.

Imtiaz Amanat, Legal Aid Coordinator at the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, told ICC that Pakistan’s “blasphemy laws need reform. There are a number of case studies where these laws have been misused against the most vulnerable segments of the society.”

Following the conviction, a petition on Masih’s behalf will be filed within a month in the Sindh High Court to challenge the decision. However, it will likely take years before his petition will be heard and he could be released.

Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy in 2009, was sentenced to death in 2010 and is still awaiting the outcome of her appeal.

*The nameMasih”, which derives from “Messiah”, has been used for whole Christian communities for many years in Pakistan and does not necessarily signify a family connection.