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Blasphemy bail ruling wins praise in Pakistan

Duo set free less than a month after arrest in a country were bail applications for the offense take years to be granted
Daughters of Musarrat Bibi who was unusually granted bail less than a month after being arrested under Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, speak to the media at their home in Punjab province

Daughters of Musarrat Bibi who was unusually granted bail less than a month after being arrested under Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, speak to the media at their home in Punjab province. (Photo: Saleem Iqbal)

Published: May 19, 2023 03:17 AM GMT
Updated: May 19, 2023 03:23 AM GMT

Christian leaders in Pakistan have cheered a court granting bail to a local Christian woman and a Muslim man accused of blasphemy less than a month after their arrest, terming it a new record and a hopeful sign.

Usually, it takes years for bail to be granted in such cases, often because judges fear possible retribution from an angry public. 

Musarrat Bibi, a mother of three, and Muhammad Sarmad, a gardener, were arrested on April 19 for allegedly burning pages of the Quran while cleaning a girl's school in a village in Punjab province.

Bibi, an office assistant at the school for more than a decade, was accused of burning the Quran, while Sarmad was accused of helping her with the cleaning up and burning of the waste. Both were released on bail on May 13.

“Sometimes bail in a blasphemy case, particularly involving Christians, can take up to two decades depending on the hype, investigation officer and attitude of the judge,” said Human rights lawyer Nadeem Anthony.

“Bibi and Sarmad are lucky to get bail in a blasphemy case in record time,” he told UCA News.

“It should set a precedence for other judges"

He said someone accused of blasphemy is seen as a sinner and public anger in the Muslim-majority nation overshadows justice. “Few judges show bravery against public pressure,” the lawyer explained.

Bail delaying tactics include presenting incomplete files or judges being absent during the court hearing.

The latest bail verdict “gives hope to Christians in Pakistan,” said Cecil Chaudhry, South Asia deputy team leader of Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

“It should set a precedence for other judges to follow when hearing cases of blasphemy,” said Chaudhry, former executive director of the Catholic Bishop’s National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP).

Advocate Lazar Allah Rakha, who represented Bibi in court told UCA News, “there was no case to begin with” regarding the allegations against Bibi and Sarmad.

The complaint was filed four days after the alleged incident. “There was no deliberate intention to burn the Holy Quran. The lives of two illiterate persons were endangered due to an accident,” said Rakha, a Christian.

“At least the judges are now understanding the reality"

“For the first time in the history of the country, a blasphemy-accused Christian has been freed in less than a month,” he claimed.

However, a Chinese national arrested in early April for blasphemy was released on bail on April 28, media reports said. The man identified only as Tian, was part of a group of Chinese working on the Dasu Dam, the biggest hydropower project in Pakistan.

Fast-track bail is rare for Christians and “it is the first step” towards ensuring the human dignity of blasphemy accused, said  Father Bonnie Mendes, the founder of the Society for Human Development.

“At least the judges are now understanding the reality of false accusations,” he said.

Rights groups and Christian leaders say the controversial blasphemy laws have been misused. Often personal disputes against religious minorities are settled by resorting to the sweeping law, they said.

“We’ll have to wait and see if this will be a pattern for the future where blasphemy victims will not be victimized just because they are accused,” he said.

Blasphemy is punishable by death under Pakistani law. In a religiously sensitive country, a mere allegation is enough to provoke a mob to riot and lynch those accused of blasphemy.

Eight blasphemy accused were either acquitted or granted bail last year, according to the Catholic Bishop’s National Commission for Justice and Peace.

According to the Lahore-based Centre for Social Justice, 57 cases of alleged blasphemy cases have been reported so far this year.  Punjab tops the list with 28 cases followed by Sindh (16), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (8), and Kashmir (5).

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