A Christian man in Pakistan has been acquitted of blasphemy and released from prison after serving 10 years of a life sentence.
International Christian Concern (ICC) reports the Lahore High Court has acquitted Imran Ghafur Masih, a Christian sentenced to life in prison under Pakistan's blasphemy laws.
According to Imran's family, they have moved into hiding following the acquittal due to potential threats from Islamic extremists.
The high court reached its decision in Imran's case on Dec. 15 and ordered him to be immediately released. The development came as a shock to Imran's family.
"It is a day of resurrection for us," Naveed Masih, Imran's brother, told ICC. "God has heard our cry and we are very thankful to him. It's a Christmas gift for us."
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Back in 2009, Imran was accused of blasphemy after he took advice from his Muslim neighbor about burning a book. He was cleaning his family's bookshop in Hajweri town, located in Faisalabad. He was about to burn some trash he collected, which included some old books and papers when he came across a textbook with Arabic writing. Concerned that the book contained religious writings, Imran asked Hajji Liaquat Ali about burning the book.
Ali told Imran to burn the book, so he threw it into the fire and walked away. When the book was partially burned, Ali returned and pulled it out of the fire. He used this partially burned book to falsely accuse Imran of burning a Quran. According to Imran's family, Ali wanted to take over the storefront leased to the family's bookshop so he could expand his building materials business which is located next door.
News of the alleged Quran burning spread to local mosques where they even announced it over their public address systems. A large mob of approximately 400 Muslims came to Imran's home, where they attacked him, his brother, and his father.
Local police arrived on the scene and took Imran into custody. Meanwhile, a mob of 1,000 Muslims reportedly gathered outside the police station and chanted, "Hang him who disgraces the Holy Quran… Christians are dogs. Imran is a dog."
The police charged Imran with blasphemy and handed out copies of the charges against him in an effort to placate the mob.
In January of 2010, the Sessions Court of Faisalabad sentenced Imran to life in prison and a fine of 100,000 rupees under Sections 295-A and 295-B of Pakistan's blasphemy laws. Over the next 10 years, Imran's case was appealed to the Lahore High Court but was postponed nearly 70 times. According to Imran's lawyer, the appeal passed through the offices of at least 10 justices.
In Pakistan, false accusations of blasphemy are common and often motivated by personal vendettas or religious hatred. Currently, at least 24 Christians are imprisoned on blasphemy charges in Pakistan.
ICC's Regional Manager for South Asia, William Stark, said, "We here at International Christian Concern are happy to see Imran Masih finally acquitted and released after more than 10 years in prison. It is great to see such a prolonged blasphemy case justly resolved at the High Court level in Pakistan."
"However, we remain deeply concerned for the safety of Imran and his family. Extremists in Pakistan are known to target individuals accused of religious crimes, like blasphemy, even after they have been acquitted," Stark continued. "The abuse of Pakistan's blasphemy laws must be curbed and false allegations must be rooted out and punished. Too often these laws have been a tool in the hands of extremists seeking to stir up religiously motivated violence against minorities. Without reform, religious minorities will continue to face false blasphemy accusations and the violence that often accompanies these accusations."
Earlier this month, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released a new report titled Violating Rights: Enforcing the World's Blasphemy Laws. The report examines the enforcement of blasphemy laws worldwide over a four-year period. Blasphemy laws criminalize expressions that insult or offend religious doctrines, according to the USCIRF.