Islamabad, Pakistan – A Pakistani appeals court has acquitted a Christian man who spent about seven years in jail on the accusation of blasphemy, a charge that led to communal rioting that saw more than 120 houses in a Christian-majority area in Lahore city burned down by an enraged mob in 2013.
Sawan Masih, 40, was arrested in 2013 on blasphemy charge following an argument with a Muslim man in the eastern Pakistani city.
A two-member bench of the Lahore High Court on Tuesday acquitted Masih of all charges, with a full verdict detailing the reasons for the acquittal to be issued at a later date.
Masih was convicted and sentenced to death under Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws by a lower court in 2014. The court had convicted him of insulting Prophet Muhammad, a charge that carries a mandatory death penalty under Pakistani law.
Blasphemy is an emotive subject in Pakistan, where the country’s strict laws criminalise insulting Islam, its prophet and the holy book, as well as other offences against the religion.
These crimes can carry a death sentence and, increasingly, mobs and vigilantes have been taking matters into their own hands. At least 77 people have been killed in mob and targeted attacks in connection with blasphemy allegations since 1990, according to an Al Jazeera tally.
The latest such attack took place in the northwestern city of Peshawar in July, when a man accused of blasphemy was shot dead in a court during a hearing in his case.
In 2013, a day after the accusations against Masih surfaced, a mob attacked his Christian-majority neighbourhood of Joseph Colony, in Lahore’s Badami Bagh area, in what was then one of the worst incidents of violence around the blasphemy laws.
More than 120 homes were burned down, in addition to a church and several shops, as hundreds of protesters armed with sticks, pipes, and stones ransacked the colony before setting it on fire.
In 2017, all 115 suspects who were under trial for the arson were acquitted by a Lahore court for want of evidence.