No evidence against three Pakistani Christians charged with “blasphemy”

19 January 2021

Lawyers acting for three Pakistani Christian men, charged with “blasphemy” for allegedly burning pages of the Quran on Christmas Day in Punjab province, say there is no evidence against them.

The Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), which provides legal aid to Christians, with support from Barnabas Fund, says police have no eyewitness to the alleged incident or evidence of burned pages of the Quran.

A Christian at work in one of Pakistan’s many brick-kilns. There has been no previous trouble related to religion in Kotli Muhammad Sadique, where most Christians work in the nearby brick-kilns

Police arrived in the village of Kotli Muhammad Sadique, near Narrowal city, as the Christians were preparing to leave church following a Christmas service on 25 December 2020. Muslims led officers to a pile of ashes, which they claimed to be burnt pieces of a blue box installed locally to collect pages containing Quranic verses.

A large mob of Muslims from surrounding villages later gathered demanding the arrest of the three Christian men. Azeem Mehmood, at home on leave from the Pakistan Army, was arrested that night and sent to jail the following day. Two other suspects, Irfan Saleem and Abbas Gulshan, were advised to surrender themselves to the police to safeguard the entire Christian community in the village. The pair were later granted bail by a magistrate and Azeem has since been bailed.

The men were charged under section 295 of Pakistan’s Penal Code, punishable with a fine or two years’ imprisonment. Lawyers say that police have the authority at any point to add a charge under 295-B, which has a penalty of life imprisonment.

Police praised for keeping Christian community safe

Christian homes number about 40 in Kotli Muhammad Sadique, and locals say the village has never experienced any trouble related to religion before. Most of the Christian residents work in brick-kilns near the village.

Critics of Pakistan’s blasphemy law say it can easily be misused by people with a grudge against someone else, and Christians are particularly vulnerable to false accusation by Muslims. Often the mere accusation of “blasphemy” is enough to incite vigilante violence against Christian communities, and police can sometimes fail to act to protect the Christians. However, CLAAS lawyers said that police officers in Kotli Muhammad Sadique have played an “important role in keeping the situation under control and the community safe”.

From Barnabas Fund contacts

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