Christians in Pakistan have welcomed the decision of a court to grant bail to a mentally disabled Christian who has been imprisoned for more than three years on charges of “blasphemy”.
Lahore High Court Judge Tariq Saleem Sheikh announced the decision in favour of Stephen Masih on 31 May.
Stephen, who suffered brain damage as a result of typhoid fever at the age of ten, was imprisoned on 11 March 2019 after being accused of making derogatory remarks about Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.
The accusations followed a dispute between Stephen and a Muslim neighbour. He was charged under section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which carries a mandatory death sentence.
“I am sorry to say that the misuse of the blasphemy law continues to do harm and people use the law for personal grudges and revenge,” said a church leader in Karachi.
“We welcome the court's decision to grant bail,” he added, “but at the same time we are concerned about the man’s safety. Once a person is accused of blasphemy in Pakistan, his life is always at risk and in danger.”
Stephen’s legal team say they will continue to try to clear his name. “Stephen has been facing prison for over three years for an alleged crime he has never committed,” said defence lawyer Abdul Hameed Rana.
“The case against him has gaps,” added Rana. “For our part we will continue to fight in court to get him acquitted because he is innocent.”
Stephen, then 38, was living at home with his sister and bedridden elderly mother in Imran Pura Badian village, Sialkot District, Punjab, when two Muslim men claimed he “made derogatory remarks against the Holy Prophet Muhammad in their presence” and ignored their requests to stop. His house has since been set on fire twice.
In August 2021 a court rejected his previous application for release on bail, even though the Punjab Institute of Mental Health determined that he suffers from bipolar disorder and is therefore unfit even to stand trial. International human rights experts called in October 2021 for charges against Stephen to be dropped.
Pakistan’s notorious “blasphemy” laws are often used to make false accusations in order to settle personal grudges. Christians are especially vulnerable, as simply stating their beliefs can be construed as “blasphemy” and the lower courts usually favour the testimony of Muslims, in accordance with sharia (Islamic law).