LAHORE: A Pakistani court has acquitted a Christian man who was sentenced to death for blasphemy six years ago in the country’s second largest city, lawyers said Thursday.
Younis Masih, 34, a labourer, was arrested in September 2005 in the low-income Qenchi Amar Siddhu neighbourhood of Lahore after local residents accused him of interrupting a gathering of Sufi singing to make blasphemous remarks.
Masih’s lawyer, Naeem Shakir, said his client was sentenced to death in May 2007 and fined 100,000 rupees ($1,000), but appealed to the high court in Lahore.
“The high court on Wednesday decided to overturn the death sentence and ordered that Masih be acquitted,” Shakir told AFP.
“I argued the case in February and put to the court that there is no direct evidence against Younis Masih and that the case was based on hearsay,” he said.
Blasphemy is a very sensitive issue in Pakistan, where 97 percent of the 180 million population are Muslims, and even unproven allegations can spark a violent public backlash.
Rights campaigners argue the blasphemy laws, for which the maximum penalty is death, are often abused to settle personal scores and should be reformed.
Shakir said his client would be freed “in a couple of days” after he obtained a written copy of the decision and a detailed judgement.
The deputy prosecutor general confirmed the acquittal.
Nadeem Anthony, a lawyer working for the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also confirmed the acquittal and hailed the high court decision.
Last month, more than 3,000 furious Muslims rampaged through the Joseph Colony area of Lahore, looting property and burning buildings after a Christian was accused of blasphemy.
Surrounding Punjab province was also the scene of one of the worst outbreaks of anti-Christian violence when a mob burned 77 houses and killed seven people in the town of Gojra in 2009 after rumours that a Quran had been desecrated.