A court in Pakistan has freed a Christian man who was wrongly sentenced to 25 years in jail for blasphemy after he allegedly defiled the Koran by touching it with unwashed hands.
Munir Masih had consistently denied the allegations against him, arguing that they were false and made maliciously by a Muslim neighbour whose child had been involved in a quarrel with his 10-year-old son.
He has been freed on bail but his wife, Ruqqiya Bibbi, who was also given a 25-year sentence for the offence, is still in jail awaiting the outcome of her application for bail.
They are both appealing against sentence and conviction after Muhammad Nawaz, the man who accused them, admitted they were innocent and indicated that was willing to submit an affidavit to confirm this.
The Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) , a London and Lahore-based group fighting for the rights of Christians persecuted in Pakistan, said the case demonstrated how the country’s severe blasphemy laws continue to be misused.
“We are very delighted by the success of this case and pray for Ruqqiya to be freed next week,” said CLAAS directors Nasir Saeed and Joseph Francis in a joint statement.
“But we are still concerned about the many other innocent victims of this law who are being jailed, and suffering immensely, because of their faith,” they said.
“CLAAS continues to campaign for the repeal of the blasphemy law and urge the government of Pakistan to amend the law,” they added.
“We are helping the victims but we appeal to all societies to offer their support and help in collaborating against this ongoing injustice against Pakistani Christians.”
Munir, a labourer, will be released on Saturday November 27 after a decision on Tuesday November 23 by Mr Justice Ijaz Ahmad Chaudhry at the High Court in Lahore to grant him bail with a surety bond of 100,000 rupees (£733).
His wife’s application will be heard at the High Court next week.
The pair had previously lived together at Karmawali Mustifabad Tehsil in the Kasur district of the country with their six children – Sonia, Amna, Ameer, Akash, Muqadass and Shabir.
Their ordeal began on 8 December 2008 when a Muslim boy slapped Muqadass, then aged five, across the face, prompting his elder brother, Ameer, 10, to defend his brother by striking the boy back.
That evening the boys’ parents turned up at the family’s home with their relatives and began abusing Ruqqiya.
Shortly afterwards the couple were accused by their neighbours of defiling the Koran and they were arrested. The offence carries a life sentence under the Pakistani Penal Code.
In January 2009 the pair were released on bail only to be reported by same neighbours the following February of insulting Muhammad, the founder of Islam, an offence which carries the death penalty under Section 295-C of the code.
During a bail application in May 2009 about 50 radical Muslim clerics tried to storm the courtroom while others promised to kill Ruqqiya and Munir whatever the outcome of their trial.
They were released from custody in October 2009 after CLAAS filed a third application for bail and went into hiding.
In February this year a jury in Kasur cleared them of defaming Muhammad but convicted them of the lesser offence. They were sentenced to life on March 2.
CLAAS filed their recent appeal for bail with the High Court, through its lawyers Tahir Gul Sadiq, Nasir Anjum and Tanvir Gill.
The organisation hopes that the family will be reunited for Christmas.