Rare Victory for Religious Freedom in Pakistan

High Court declares Rimsha Masih innocent of blasphemy, but she can never return home.

She was the topic of worldwide concern and prayers as she awaited her fate in an Islamabad jail cell. She was the victim of an accusation most feared by – and arbitrarily waged against – Christians and Muslims alike. Now the young Pakistani Christian, Rimsha Masih, is the first of such falsely-accused victims of Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy laws to be exonerated. On Tuesday, November 20, Compass Direct News Service announced that Masih had been cleared of all charges by the Islamabad High Court.

In August 2012, Masih, who is believed to be mentally disabled, was accused of desecrating the Koran by a Muslim neighbor, Malik Ammad. Ammad claimed that there were burned pages of the Noorani Qaida, a booklet used to study the Koran, in Masih’s shopping bag. The local imam, Khalid Jadoon Chisti, called the authorities and filed a FIR (First Information Report) against the girl, all the while demanding that she be handed over to the Islamist mob and burned alive. Masih was arrested and charged under section 295-B of Pakistan’s penal code, a charge that carries a sentence of life imprisonment. She spent three weeks in maximum security for her own protection and the rest of her family went into hiding.

Soon after Masih’s arrest, the impoverished Christian community in Meherabad, the Islamabad suburb where she and her family lived, faced a backlash from Islamist mobs. Over 600 Christian families were beaten and forced to flee their homes. Many found refuge in a Christian slum area outside of Islamabad, the H-9 sector, where the homeless live in tents in the forest.

Happily, other Muslims in the community assisted in bringing justice. Some members of the local Mehra Jaffer mosque, including the imam’s own deputy, Hafiz Muhammad Zubair, informed the police that Chisti had himself placed desecrated pages of Koranic material in Masih’s bag to get rid of the community’s Christians and seize their property. Chisti was arrested on September 2. The Barnabas Fund noted that this was the first time that someone had been arrested in Pakistan for fabricating evidence in a blasphemy case.

Compass Direct News quoted Masih’s attorney, Akmal Bhatti, who said that the charges against Masih had been a misuse of law, and the court had “quashed the case” and “declared Rimsha innocent.” Another of Masih’s attorneys, Naveed Chaudry, said that not only was this “the first case of its kind when a person charged under the strict blasphemy laws is exonerated from the accusation” but it “has also brought for the first time a debate on how these laws are misused to target innocent people.”

Likewise, in a November 20 interview with Asia News, Pakistan’s Minister of National Harmony and the only Christian politician on a State level, Paul Bhatti, said that Masih’s acquittal “is an important precedent” in blasphemy cases, “a cause for double satisfaction.” First, it sets a precedent that greatly discourages the blasphemy laws from being used for “personal purposes,” something that has always been a serious problem in Pakistan. Second, those who make unjust accusations will themselves “risk a trial and penalties under Pakistan’s legal code.”

It remains to be seen what effect these legal precedents will have in improving religious freedom and freedom of speech for Christians and others in Pakistan. The Islamabad High Court Chief Justice, Iqbal Hameed ur Rehman, in a 15-page judgment said that “no one had seen Rimsha burning any pages.” He admonished that “Fake allegations should not be leveled against any Muslim or non-Muslim.” But as with any Pakistani Christian accused of blasphemy against Islam, however fake the allegations, Masih’s life and the lives of her family members have been forever altered. They can never go home again.

Bhatti knows first-hand the danger facing Christians in Pakistan. His brother and predecessor as the Minister of National Harmony, Shahbaz, was gunned down for his work to defend Christians against the blasphemy laws. But Bhatti does not talk of overturning, repealing the entire blasphemy law. Rimsha Masih’s story, he says, “will not lead to a 'revision' of the law, but constitutes a 'precedent' to improve the 'interpretation' of cases and events of blasphemy.” He may have in mind the case of Christian wife and mother of five, Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death under the blasphemy laws in November 2010 and is still in prison. His brother Shahbaz was murdered while defending Bibi.

Unless Pakistan repeals the blasphemy laws, they remain a threat and a weapon. Just days after Rimsha Masih was released from prison on bail and brought to her family’s hiding place, another Christian teenager, Ryan Stanton, was falsely accused of blasphemy in Karachi. He and his family are also in hiding. Perhaps they can be helped on an individual basis by this new precedent, set in the case of Rimsha Masih. Perhaps the new precedent to improve the interpretation of blasphemy cases can also re-interpret events and save the life of Asia Bibi. Like starfish on the beach that are flung back into the ocean, Pakistan’s Christians may only be saved one by one.

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