By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)-- A Christian man who spent 20 months in a Pakistani prison on charges of "blasphemy against Islam" has been released after a local court acquitted him on all charges, two advocacy officials involved in his case told BosNewsLife.
Usman Masih was detained on May 25, 2016, in Pakistan's Punjab province after a group of men "falsely accused" him of offending Islam, rights activists said. Earlier, his accusers attacked him physically and blackmailed Masih with pictures of young women on the Facebook website, according to Christians with close knowledge about the situation.
Despite questions surrounding the case, the young Christian man was forced to wait for a verdict behind bars, BosNewsLife learned. On Friday, February 16, a court in the provincial town of Ferozewala acquitted Masih on all blasphemy charges, trial observers said.
Judge Muhammad Moeen Khokhar reportedly said there was a "lack of evidence" to convict the Christian under Pakistan's controversial blasphemy legislation.
The ruling is good news for Farrukh Saif, international director of the Rescue Christians advocacy group, which supports the family.
FATHER ASKING HELP
“In 2016, the father of Usman Masih requested us to help his son," he told BosNewsLife. "After our investigation, we discovered a gang of Christian and Muslim men who took pictures of girls and women and posted them on [social media website] Facebook to blackmail him," he recalled.
"Before the blasphemy accusation, these people physically assaulted Usman Masih." Though the Christian submitted a criminal complaint, police declined to detain the attackers "due to their religious bias," Saif said.
BosNewsLife wasn't able to reach police for comment, but authorities have come under European Union pressure to improve the protection of Christians in the predominantly Muslim nation.
"After Usman had made his complaint, the same people who had attacked him physically filed false charges of blasphemy with no evidence. It was an act of revenge," Saif explained. He said police "acted upon this false charges" and detained Masih. The case underscored "the discrimination we have witnessed many times in Pakistan over the last few decades,” Saif stressed.
The executive director of Rescue Christians, Keith Davies, said "God has used" his group and partners to help secure the release of the Christian. "We are delighted to be able to announce the securing of this acquittal and freedom for Usman Masih."
'NO SUPPORTING EVIDENCE'
However, Davies complained that it is "tragic that people can get away with fabricating stories with no supporting evidence to imprison Christians" in Pakistan "using a law that should not be even on the statutes of any country.”
It was not immediately clear what impact the acquittal could have on similar cases, including that of Christian Asia Bibi, a married mother of five, who may become the first woman to be executed by the State on controversial charges of 'blasphemy against Islam.'
Last year, European legislators visited Pakistan amid concerns about her situation and the alleged misuse of the blasphemy legislation.
Bibi, 48, has been in prison since 2009 after she reportedly told Muslim co-workers that Jesus Christ is alive. She made the remarks while working in the fields for a Muslim landowner, according to investigators.
Rights activists and other critics suggest that the blasphemy legislation has attributed to an atmosphere of hatred towards minorities, including Christians.
Since 1990, some 65 people were murdered in Pakistan after being accused of blasphemy, according to several reports. Christians comprise roughly three percent of Pakistan's 205 million people.