By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
BAHAWALPUR, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)-- A Pakistani worker, who converted from Hinduism to Christianity, was expected to embrace his family later on Tuesday, January 29, after spending nearly 16 months in prison on "false charges" of "blasphemy", his defense team told BosNewsLife.
Sweeper and cleaner Barkat Masih was told he would be released because a court in the eastern city of Bahawalpur declared him "innocent" on charges of blasphemy against Islam, said advocacy group World Vision In Progress (WVIP), which defended him during the trial.
Masih, 56, was detained October 1, 2011 following a dispute with co-workers, at at a Muslim shrine in Bahawalpur, explained WVIP Executive Director Farrukh H. Saif.
"They asked him to give them the duplicate keys of the shrine so that they could take the property papers of the land on which the shrine was built," Saif said.
Masih refused because he feared they would use those documents to obtain the land through illegal means, according to WVIP investigators.
The two men, identified as Muhammad Saleem and Muhammad Shoaib, threatened him with "consequences" and submitted an application to local police alleging that the Christian worker "committed blasphemy" against Islam's Prophet Mohammed and Allah, Saif said.
"Masih could easily have received the death penalty. However presiding Judge Javed Ahmedon of the Bahawalpur court declared him innocent," the WVIP official added.
He said the court on Monday, January 28, agreed with a police report that "Barkat Masih is an honest and trustworthy person and that he is falsely accused."
The worker would be able to see his wife and their four sons and a daughter, later on Tuesday, January 29, Saif confirmed to BosNewsLife.
He said the Pakistani court's decision to release Masih from Bahawalpur Jail could positively impact other cases, including against Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five facing the death penalty.
"We are defending several Christians detained in Pakistan for blasphemy," Said said.
He acknowledged that it was not immediately clear whether the decision to release Masih would be appealed. "For now we are hopeful that he is free."
Over a dozen people are known to be on death row over blasphemy allegations and more than 50 people have been killed while awaiting trial on similar charges, according to rights activists.
Two politicians, the governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, Salman Taseer, and Christian federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti, were assassinated in 2011 for criticizing the country's blasphemy law.
Heavily Islamic Pakistan has come under mounting international pressure to overturn the legislation amid concerns it is misused to settle personal disputes and to oppress religious minorities, including Christians, as well as moderate Muslims.
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