LAHORE, Pakistan, January 17, 2023 (Morning Star News) – His voice shaky, Saleem Masih said his family has been living in fear since Nov. 29, when his son was arrested on false accusations of blasphemy – which can carry the death penalty in Pakistan.
Officials of the Federal Investigation Agency’s Cybercrime unit took Ishtiaq Saleem, a 31-year-old father of one child, into custody in Islamabad after sacrilegious images of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, appeared in a social media group on his phone; Saleem said he was not aware of the images he was accused of sharing until he was arrested.
“My son is a sensible man and has never indulged in such acts,” Masih told Morning Star News by phone. “Ishtiaq says that someone had shared the sacrilegious images in a social media group that inadvertently got downloaded to his phone. He says he hasn’t posted or shared those images anywhere because he didn’t even realize they were there until the time he was arrested by the FIA officials.”
The complainant, Muhammad Imran, alleged that Saleem posted and shared blasphemous images on WhatsApp and Facebook. The FIA subsequently registered a First Information Report (FIR No. 187/2022) against Saleem under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes, prohibiting disrespect of Muhammad and punishable by death; Section 295-B, against defiling the Koran and punishable by imprisonment for life and fine; and Section 295-A, against deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings and punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine.
He was also charged under Section 298-A, against defiling names of wives, family members and companions of Islam’s prophet; Section 109, against abetment to a crime; and Section 11 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, against dissemination of hate speech.
FIA Islamabad Cybercrime Deputy Director Mudassir Shah alleges in the FIR that Saleem “with criminal intentions and ulterior motives illegally and unauthorizedly created/developed and further uploaded/transmitted/disseminated as well as publicly projected/displayed Holy and Sacred name of The Almighty, The Holy Prophet, The Holy Wives of The Prophet and The Holy Companions and Family of the Prophet on private parts of the human necked [sic] body along with sacrilegious/loathsome narration/speech using WhatsApp and Facebook.”
Claiming that “sufficient incriminating evidence” was recovered from Saleem’s phone, the FIR suggests that Saleem was arrested and booked after an investigation on the complaint by Imran, though Masih said the family learned of the case only after the arrest.
“It is only now that we have shared this news to seek support for him as well as security for our family,” said Masih, a member of the Anglican Church of Pakistan and a sanitation worker at Islamabad’s Capital Development Authority.
Masih said his son was treated in custody the same way police treat other suspects, especially those who are poor.
“He was in FIA custody for two days only,” he said. “Some officials did beat him a little on the first day of his arrest, but he was then moved to Adiyala Central Prison in Rawalpindi on judicial remand.”
Appealing to Pakistani Christian leaders and the international community, Masih said the family lived in a part of Islamabad that has a mixed population of both Christians and Muslims. He has hired a defense lawyer but was concerned for the safety of his family.
“This news is now spreading, and we don’t know how our neighbors or religious groups would react to it,” Masih said. “We need security and help from our community leaders.”
Saleem worked for over four months as sanitation worker without getting paid, Masih said. Non-payment of salaries is a chronic challenge facing Christian sanitation workers in Islamabad and other cities of Pakistan, forcing them into abject poverty and making them vulnerable to loan sharks.
“Ishtiaq was very disturbed due to non-payment of his salary, but I’d encourage him to remain steadfast,” Masih said. “Such was his fate that his pending salary was released the day after his arrest.”
Joseph Jansen, president of the Voice of Justice, said that Pakistani Christians live in perpetual fear due to Pakistan’s widely condemned blasphemy laws.
“A growing number of accusations and arrests have been linked to alleged violations of the electronic crimes law, but the charge of blasphemy is often included in cases involving religious minorities,” Jansen told Morning Star News. “It is important to assess the intentions of the accused before they are booked under a charge as serious as blasphemy.”
His group was helping the Masih family by highlighting the case internationally, he said.
Several people have been lynched or killed unlawfully over false accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan. According to the Lahore-based Center for Social Justice, 1,949 cases of people accused of blasphemy were registered in Pakistan between 1987 and 2021, including 928 Muslims, 643 Ahmadis, 281 Christians, 42 Hindus, and 55 of unknown faith. Of these, 84 people were killed out of court before a final verdict was reached.
Pakistan ranked eighth on Open Doors’ 2022 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. The country had the second-highest number of Christians killed for their faith, behind Nigeria, with 620 slain during the reporting period from Oct. 1, 2020 to Sept. 30, 2021. Pakistan had the fourth-highest number of churches attacked or closed, with 183, and overall.
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Article originally published by Morning Star News. Used with permission.
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Jcamilobernal