After serving four and a half years in prison for alleged blasphemy against Islam, Pakistani Christian Aslam Masih was acquitted on June 4 in a 15-minute appeals hearing before the Lahore High Court.

Police arrested Masih, then in his mid-50s, in November 1998. Accusers said he had desecrated the Qur'an by hanging verses from the Muslim holy book in a charm around a dog's neck. Authorities have held him in jail ever since. Sources say he has suffered from health problems because of a police beating.

The prosecution produced only hearsay evidence against Masih, but a lower court found him guilty on May 7, 2002. The Faisalabad Additional Sessions Court sentenced him to serve double life sentences and pay a fine of 100,000 rupees (then $1,660).

In overturning Masih's lower court conviction, Justice Najam ur-Zaman noted the prosecution's star witness had retracted the statement attributed to him by the police. Ur-Zaman accused police of concocting it.

Security arrangements are now in process for Masih's release from prison. The high court must still deliver its verdict to the lower court before authorities can release Masih.

Seven other Christians remain jailed in Pakistan on charges of blasphemy under the country's notorious "black laws." These laws target members of the Muslim Ahmadi sect and other religious minorities.

Related Elsewhere:

Other coverage of Aslam Masih's acquittal includes:

Christians besieged in PakistanThe Washington Times (June 28, 2003)
Pakistani Christian set free after four and a half years in jail on false blasphemy charges—Christian Solidarity Worldwide (June 11, 2003)

Previous CT stories on Aslam Masih include:

Pakistan Sentences Another Christian to Death | Now two on death row, five appealing life sentences. ...
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