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Longest Jailed Pakistan Christian "Released" From Prison

Saturday, November 11, 2006 | Tag Cloud

By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correrspondent BosNewsLife

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife) -- Pakistan's longest jailed Christian prisoner of conscious was preparing for his release Saturday, November 11, following eight and a half years behind bars, after the Lahore High Court acquitted him of blasphemy charges.

The Lahore-based Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) said 58-year old Ranjha Masih, a former hospital worker, was to be transferred by Christians to a "secure" undisclosed location amid fears he could face death threats. There have been unconfirmed reports that Masih may receive asylum in Germany, but German officials could not be reached for comment.

Late Friday, November 10, Presiding Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khausa ruled that the lack "of any solid evidence" against Masih required him to issue a complete acquittal. Masih, who is married and has six children, was detained in 1998 for allegedly damaging a sign containing versus from the Quran, seen as a holy book by Muslims.

The incident apparently happened during a demonstration surrounding the funeral for Catholic Bishop of Faisalabad John Joseph, who committed suicide to protest the execution of a Christian man on blasphemy charges. Shorly after his burial, local Christians demonstrated against the government. Stones were thrown, and one of them hit a shop sign that featured a verse from the Koran. Police arrested Masih, who denied any wrongdoing, and charged
him with blasphemy.

NO BAIL

After being held for five years without bail, a Faisalabad court sentenced Ranjha Masih in 2003 to life in prison amid reported protests by local Muslims who demanded that he be hanged. CLAAS lawyers immediately appealed the ruling, leading to his eventual acquittal Friday, November 10.

Yet, in published remarks, Khalil Tahir, one of the lawyers of Masih, said he had mixed feeling about the eventual acquittal of his client. "We are very happy that Masih has been acquitted but he was subjected to eight years of unjust imprisonment in an isolation cell," Tahir said. "This sentence proves once again that the blasphemy law is used to settle personal scores with people like Masih, known for his firm Christian beliefs."

Section 295 (B) of Pakistan’s Penal Code, more commonly known as the ‘blasphemy law’, imposes life in prison for anyone desecrating Islam’s holy scriptures. However human rights watchers allege that the law has often been used to settle private disputes, affecting Muslims as well as Christians.

At least 23 people involved in blasphemy cases have been murdered in Pakistan, according to the National Commission for Justice and Peace. A quarter of the victims were apparently Christians, although they are believed to comprise less than 2 percent of the country’s population.

PERSECUTION SYMBOL

During his imprisonment, Masih became a symbol of religious persecution. Earlier this year the International Society for Human Rights (IGFM) honored Ranjha Masih with the newly established Stephen Endowment award in recognition of his "steadfastness in maintaining his Christian beliefs."

Yet during his imprisonment Masih said he sometimes felt forgotten by fellow believers, BosNewsLife learned. He also suffered from hemorrhoids, severe knee joint pains because of rheumatoid arthritis, insomnia, and diabetes, CLAAS said.

Last month in a letter by BosNewsLife, CLAAS Coordinator Wasim Muntizar said that during a recent meeting with the jailed Christian, "Ranjha told me of the agony he suffers daily. He shared that he had almost no support from the Christians(church)." Muntizar said "many Muslims had contacted him and told him that if he converted to Islam, then they could get him out of jail." The Christian refused. "He said that it was His grace that was helping him to
go through all this physical and mental torment."

Jubilee Campaign USA, another advocacy group involved in supporting Masih, has linked the release to international pressure and prayers from supporters around the world. (With reports from Pakistan and BosNewsLife Research).

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