Acquittal gives Christian in Pakistan hope for 2nd blasphemy case

By Christian Daily International / Morning Star News |
Parents of Noman Masih hold a photograph of their imprisoned son.
Parents of Noman Masih hold a photograph of their imprisoned son. | (Christian Daily International-Morning Star News)

A Christian sentenced to death in one blasphemy case in Pakistan was acquitted on Feb. 20 in another related to the same incident, with the judge citing double jeopardy, his attorney said.

Police illegally charged Noman Masih, 24, twice for the same incident, but he remains on death row for conviction in the first case, said attorney Lazar Allah Rakha.

“Bahawalnagar Additional Sessions Judge Sarfaraz Ahmed on Feb. 20 admitted my arguments that the case against my client Noman Masih came under the principle of double jeopardy, which clearly states that no person can be prosecuted or punished for the same offense more than once,” Rakha told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News.

Masih was charged by police in two cities, Bahawalnagar and Bahawalpur, as officers acted with a mala fide intent to punish him in two blasphemy cases registered within three days.

“The police also tried to prosecute him in an anti-terrorism court, although the case did not fall under terrorism,” Rakha said. “I resisted their attempt and successfully argued that the case be heard by the sessions court. The police’s prejudicial attitude towards Masih insinuates that someone wanted to see him suffer at all costs.”

A judge in the Bahawalpur case handed Masih the death sentence in May 2023 after a four-year trial, though prosecutors failed to provide any evidence against him, Rakha said.

“Moreover, all the witnesses produced by the prosecution also failed to corroborate the police narrative,” he said. “It was a miscarriage of justice, to say the least.”

The Feb. 20 acquittal in the Bahawalnagar case has raised hope that the Lahore High Court will consider Masih’s appeal against the death sentence on merit and order his acquittal, Rakha said.

“I’m 1,000 percent confident that the high court will set aside Masih’s conviction when it examines the lacunas in the prosecution’s story that the trial court had ignored,” he said. “Masih will, God willing, soon reunite with his family.”

The attorney, who has won freedom for several persons charged with blasphemy, expressed gratitude for legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) International, which supported him in Masih’s case.

“Masih’s parents are very poor, and I’m grateful to ADF for partnering with me in this legal battle for justice,” he said.

Masih’s father, Asghar Masih, said his family was deeply relieved to learn about the acquittal.

“We had been on a knife’s edge after the conclusion of the trial in the Bahawalnagar case,” he told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News. “When we informed Noman about his acquittal, he was overwhelmed with joy. This is the first good news he has had in a very long time.”

Asghar Masih, a cleaner and member of the Anglican Church of Pakistan, said he could not thank Rakha enough for standing with the family.

“Though advocate Lazar continuously encouraged us and kept our hopes alive, my wife and I have been extremely worried about the outcome of this case,” he said.

‘Secret Information’

Police arrested Noman Masih and his cousin, Sunny Waqas, after officers in their respective districts, citing “secret information,” filed cases against them under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy statutes. Section 295-C, for derogatory comments about Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, carries a mandatory death sentence.

Trainee Sub-Inspector Fraz Ahmed of the Faqirwali Police Station in Bahawalnagar claimed he received “secret information” that Waqas had printed blasphemous sketches of Islam’s prophet and was carrying them in a black bag to show other people, according to First Information Report (FIR) No. 353/19.

Upon questioning, Waqas told police that his cousin Noman had shared the alleged sacrilegious images with him on WhatsApp, according to the complainant. Waqas was taken into custody on June 29, 2019 and charged with blasphemy.

On July 1, 2019, Bahawalpur police arrested Noman Masih.

A FIR registered by the Baghdadul Jadeed Police Station on the complaint of Sub-Inspector Muhammad Arshad Nadeem states that Nadeem received “secret information” that Noman Masih was sitting in a public park at 3:30 a.m. with nine or 10 people and was showing them blasphemous images on his phone. The FIR states he was arrested from the park, but neighbors and Masih’s family testified that he was arrested from his home.

On Jan. 17, 2023, the Lahore High Court Bahawalpur Bench granted bail to Waqas, the main suspect, because his trial had not concluded within the mandatory two-year period. Courts routinely dismiss bail pleas by blasphemy suspects, especially those charged under Section 295-C, a non-bailable offense.

There are instances where suspects in non-bailable offenses, including murder, can be granted bail under the third proviso of Section 497 (1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Section 497 states that if suspects have not been formally charged, the trial has not been concluded within two years and the delay is not due to the accused, they should be granted bail.

Waqas has reportedly fled Pakistan after obtaining bail, and the court has declared him a proclaimed offender. His cousin Noman Masih remains incarcerated in the Bahawalpur Central Prison, where he awaits his appeal of the death sentence. 

Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2024 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, as it was the previous year.