Christian nurses' bail 'kept secret' in blasphemy case to protect women from radical Islamist attacks

Pakistani Christians in prayer in Karachi on November 15, 2015.
Pakistani Christians in prayer in Karachi on November 15, 2015. | ASIF HASSAN/AFP via Getty Images

A trial court judge in Pakistan granted bail to two Christian nurses who were charged with “defiling the Quran.” The decision was kept secret to avoid Islamist backlash, according to the defendants’ lawyer.

In April, Police in Punjab province arrested nurse Maryam Lal and third-year nursing student Navish Arooj on blasphemy charges after staff at Civil Hospital in Faisalabad city accused them of removing a sticker from a cupboard that had a verse from the Quran written on it. One of the nurses was allegedly attacked by a knife-wielding Muslim colleague.

They were arrested on April 9 but were granted bail on Sept. 23, Morning Star News quoted attorney Atif Jamil Paggan as saying.

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In granting bail, the court observed that both women had admitted to removing the sticker but denied they had done so with any ill intent to desecrate the holy inscriptions.

“Moreover, the prosecution failed to prove intentional defiling of the Quran inscription. There was no witness who had seen the two women committing any disgraceful act with the sticker. Charging someone with blasphemy for simply holding a religiously-inscribed sticker is not sufficient evidence.”

The judge ordered their release on surety bonds amounting to $571 (100,000 rupees) each, Paggan said.

“This is an unprecedented decision by any sessions court in a blasphemy case,” Paggan continued, adding that it was kept secret due to fears over security of the nurses from possible reprisal by Islamists, mainly the Muslim extremist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, a formerly banned political party. He said security fears also kept the judge from requiring the two women to appear for a hearing on Nov. 8.

“Both women are currently in a safe location,” Paggan added. “They are very happy and relieved after this court victory, and we are optimistic that the court will absolve them of the charge once the trial concludes.”

A key witness for the prosecution, a Muslim head nurse identified only as Rukhsana, failed to appear in court on Thursday for cross-examination. “She has sought exemption on maternity grounds, but we think that she is now avoiding the court because she had falsely accused Ms. Lal and Ms. Arooj over a personal grudge against the former,” Paggan was quoted as saying.

The Washington, D.C.-based American Center for Law and Justice previously said a video circulated on social media showed an employee, identified as Mohammad Waqas, calling Lal vulgar names and telling a room full of other employees that she ripped a Muslim prayer sticker off a cabinet.

“Then he said that when he found out about it, he confronted the Christian nurse Mariam. He said, ‘I am a Muslim; how can a Muslim sit quietly over blasphemy of his [p]rophet,’” the ACLJ report stated. “Then he proudly told the employees gathered in the room that he attacked Mariam with a knife, but failed when the blade broke, only injuring her arm.”

An aggressive mob gathered outside the hospital when police came to make the arrest and threatened to kill the two nurses, according to a video posted by Pak Adam TV Ministries.

A Muslim co-worker, who was not identified, allegedly made the accusation after a personal dispute over receiving cash tips from hospital patients.

The blasphemy law, embedded in Sections 295 and 298 of Pakistan's penal code, is frequently misused for personal revenge. While it permits the death penalty for those convicted of insulting Islam or its Islamic prophet Muhammad, it carries no provision to punish a false accuser or a false witness of blasphemy.

Islamic radicals also use the law to target religious minorities — Christians, Shias, Ahmadiyyas and Hindus.

The Centre for Social Justice, a Lahore-based group, recently reported that 200 people were accused of blasphemy in 2020 — a record number of cases in one year. In total, the group reports that at least 1,855 people have been charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws since 1987.

International advocates have long called on Pakistan to reform its penal code as it is often used to persecute religious minorities.

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