Saved From Death Row

By William Stark

This story was originally published in the February issue of ICC’s Persecution magazine.

02/17/2021 Pakistan (International Christian Concern) Year after year, Pakistan is ranked among the world’s worst persecutors of Christians. Amid all the reports of persecution, whether it be cases of forced conversion or communal violence, it’s easy to miss positive developments coming out of the country. However, late last year, something positive did happen. A Christian man sentenced to death for allegedly committing blasphemy was acquitted and freed.

On October 6, 2020, the Lahore High Court rendered its final decision in the blasphemy case against Sawan Masih. The judicial bench, headed by Justice Syed Shehbaz Ali Rizvi, acquitted Sawan of the blasphemy charges he was sentenced to in 2014. Those charges would have resulted in Sawan’s death if he had not been freed. After more than seven years in prison, six of which were spent on death row, Sawan was finally allowed to go free.

Sawan was accused of committing blasphemy by a Muslim friend named Muhammad Shahid on March 8, 2013. Shahid claimed that Sawan insulted the Prophet Muhammad during a conversation the two had the day prior in Joseph Colony, a Christian-majority neighborhood in Lahore. According to Shahid, Sawan said, “My Jesus is genuine. He is the Son of Allah. He will return while your Prophet is false. My Jesus is true and will give salvation.”

The day after Shahid formally accused Sawan of blasphemy, mosques near Joseph Colony recounted the accusation over their PA systems. Predictably, these announcements incited mob violence. More than 3,000 enraged Muslims attacked Joseph Colony, looting and burning roughly 180 Christian homes, 75 shops, and at least two churches. Amid the violence, Sawan was handed over to police.

In custody, Sawan was charged with committing blasphemy under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s Penal Code. This section of the blasphemy law strictly prescribes death as the only punishment for individuals found violating it. In just over a year, Sawan was officially on death row. On March 27, 2014, Judge Chaudhry Ghulam Murtaza sentenced Sawan to death at a trial held in the Lahore Camp Jail. The entire trial was held within the walls of Sawan’s prison due to security concerns the case attracted.

On appeal, Sawan’s lawyers raised several objections to the police investigation and the prosecution of the case. Sawan’s lawyers specifically pointed out contradictions in the First Information Report formally accusing Sawan of blasphemy and the testimony narrated by Shahid at trial. After hearing arguments from both sides, the Lahore High Court ruled in favor of Sawan. Explaining its decision, the court said that the prosecution failed to establish sufficient evidence to convict Sawan of blasphemy.

With that, the court ordered Sawan to be cleared of all charges and released from prison. Days after the decision, Sawan was a free man.

While Sawan’s release is certainly a victory worth celebrating, it is, unfortunately, the beginning of a dangerous road for Sawan and his family if they are to stay in Pakistan. Accusations of blasphemy are highly inflammatory and often spark mob lynchings, vigilante murders, and mass protests. According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, more than 60 people accused
of blasphemy have been murdered in Pakistan.

In 2013, Sawan’s case made international headlines and he is one of the more high-profile Christians accused of blasphemy in Pakistan to be acquitted. This fact points to a target on his back for religious fanatics looking to enforce their interpretation of Sharia law. For this exceptional story to have a truly happy ending, it is likely necessary that Sawan and his family seek asylum outside of Pakistan. Please continue to lift up our persecuted brothers and sisters in Pakistan in your prayers

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