By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent with BosNewsLife Asia Service
LAHORE, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)-- A Pakistani appeals court on Wednesday, April 3, overturned the conviction and death sentence of Younis Masih, a Christian man who spent nearly eight years behind bars on charges of 'blasphemy', a lawyer involved in the case told BosNewsLife.
Masih, 34, was sentenced in May 2007 in the city of Lahore for making "derogatory remarks" about Islam's Prophet Mohammad.
"However the Lahore High Court declared him innocent of the charges and ordered his release," said attorney Sardar Mushtaq Gill of advocacy group Legal Evangelical Association Development (LEAD).
Gill, who witnessed the ruling, told BosNewsLife that Masih will also not have to pay a fine of some 100,000 Pakistani rupees ($1,000), a huge amount in impoverished Pakistan. He said the young man was expected to embrace his wife and four children later Wednesday, April 3.
His anticipated release ends an ordeal that began in 2005 when Lahore police first detained him after Muslims complained that he asked them to turn down the volume of Islamic Mystical Sufi Music.
Some 400 Muslims attacked Christian homes, forcing over 100 families to flee the area, according to LEAD investigators
Police also "tortured" Masih and a cousin who was initially detained with him, according to Christians involved in the case. When Masih was eventually sentenced to death in 2007, LEAD and other groups supported his appeal.
Gill told BosNewsLife that Wednesday's decision by the Lahore High Court to free the young man "could positively impact" other blasphemy cases including against his client Martha Bibi, a married mother with seven children, who faces the death penalty for blasphemy.
"Martha Bibi was released on bail in 2007 but she will face another hearing this month and a final decision of the court," he explained.
Another jailed Christian woman, Asia Bibi, also hopes the Lahore High Court will rule against plans to execute her for blasphemy against Islam. Earlier, a Pakistani court dropped all charges against Rimsha Masih, a young mentally challenged Christian girl, whose detention triggered a global outcry.
Besides following the cases of these women, LEAD also supports 24-year-old Khuram Shahzad, who faces life imprisonment under section 295-B of the blasphemy legislation for "defiling the Koran", deemed a holy book by Muslims.
The cases have underscored concerns over Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which carry a potential death sentence or long prison term for anyone who insults Islam, with suspects often languishing for years in jail before their appeals are heard.
Critics say the legislation is misused to persecute Christians and others or to settle personal disputes on often trumped-up charges.
Last month, a Muslim mob attacked a Christian neighborhood, torching up to 180 homes and other Christian properties and injuring dozens in Lahore's Joseph Colony after hearing reports that a Christian young man committed blasphemy against Islam.
The detained man, Savan Masih, has denied the charges.
More than a dozen people are known to be on death row over blasphemy allegations and over 50 people have been killed while awaiting trial on similar charges, according to rights activists.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).