South Asia

Bail denied again for teenager accused of Facebook ‘blasphemy’

A 16-year-old Christian teenager, the youngest accused in Pakistan of blasphemy, has been denied bail for the second time since being charged over posts on Facebook last September.

Nabeel Masih, 16, has been in custody since 18 September 2016 for liking and sharing a post on Facebook which was deemed to be offensive towards the Kaaba pillar in Mecca – Islam’s holiest shrine.

Masih who is illiterate was denied bail previously on 7 February this year after his lawyers had argued that he should be given bail, as he is a juvenile with no previous record of criminal activity. However, the magistrate hearing his case, from Kasur court near Lahore, rejected his bail.

Districts and Sessions judge, Naveed Iqbal, said that the boy had committed a “heinous and odious act by defiling the religious feelings of Muslims and their holy place of worship”.

Incidentally, Judge Naveed Iqbal is the same judge, who sentenced Asia Bibi to death almost seven years ago. Asia Bibi remains on death row and was sentenced to be hanged till death, by the local court in Nankana district in Pakistan’s central province of Punjab, for her alleged crime of derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed.

She was arrested in June 2009 from the Ittanwalai village after a group of women went to the local cleric and subsequently to the police and made the accusation against her following an altercation with her, over her touching a bowl of water, even though she is a non-Muslim. Asia Bibi was prosecuted under the Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which carries the death penalty.

Aneeqa Maria Anthony, the lawyer who is representing Masih’s case told media that she was “confident [Masih] has committed no crime and that is why we are representing him… Nabeel is innocent: the accusation against him has not yet been proven”.

As a result of his arrest his family and other Christians in his village had to go in hiding. Social pressure against the immediate family of the person accused of blasphemy is very high and they can be the target of violence and murder.

It was reported in October 2016, that the prosecutor had threatened Masih’s counsel Advocate Aneeqa Maria and her team, inside the court premises and in the presence of the Judge. The prosecutor Advocate Amin Muzammal Chaudhry reportedly said, “It is a blasphemy case and this man has blasphemed against Islam. You should know that Pakistan is an Islamic state. We are all Muslims. These are Muslim courts so you should not defend such a criminal. You people come here from Lahore to pursue this case. Here are so many people who you cannot face. So you better watch yourself and stay away.”

It was also reported at the time, that about 80 people at the hearing had also threatened Masih’s family. The mob threatened to burn them even as the judge announced that Nabeel could face the death sentence.

The Blasphemy Law

Section 295 (B) of the Pakistan Penal Code deals with blasphemy under which over 1,300 people have been accused of blasphemy from 1987 to 2014. ‘The vast majority of the accusations were lodged for desecration of the Quran,’ reports IndiaToday. Prior to 1986, only 14 cases pertaining to blasphemy were reported. Pakistan’s laws became particularly severe between 1980 and 1986, when a number of clauses were added to the laws by the military government of General Zia-ul Haq, to “Islamicise” the laws.

Religious minorities make up four per cent of the population of Pakistan. As reported by the World Watch Monitor they account for half of the blasphemy charges filed in the country.

The mandatory penalty for insulting Mohammad in Pakistan is death, though no one has ever been executed for the crime.

Among countries with a Muslim majority, Pakistan has the strictest anti-blasphemy laws.