Haider Ali, a 16-year-old Pakistani Muslim, has been freed on bail after three years in prison on blasphemy charges. Haider is one of thousands of people, both Christian and Muslim, to have been prosecuted under Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws.
Haider Ali has been reunited with his family after three years. csi
Haider’s mother Muqadesh was there to meet her son when he finally walked free from jail in Lahore on November 13. It was the moment she had been waiting for since the day in September 2020 when she found out that her second child had been arrested.
“We never thought that our son would end up behind bars. We were worried for his life. It was also a very tough time for us as we had to travel 40 kilometers to be there whenever he appeared in court,” said Muqadesh.
Throughout their ordeal, the family has remained strong in their faith in God.
Even after the Supreme Court approved a bail application on October 20, Haider remained in jail. His lawyers struggled to find someone to make the bail payment.
Although just 13 when he was arrested, Haider was not sent to a youth prison. For the three years and two months of his detention he shared a cell with six adult men. One of his cell mates was also imprisoned on charges of blasphemy – brought against him by his own wife.
“Every day in prison was filled with fear,” Haider told Christian Solidarity International (CSI). “I was worried that someone would kill me.”
The circumstances surrounding Haider’s arrest are unclear. What is known is that another Muslim, Faisal Azi, accused him of tearing pages out of a copy of the Qur’an. His family say Haider would never have done such a thing.
Faisal himself claims that he was doing Haider a favor and protecting him from mob retribution by reporting him to the authorities. “People wanted to kill Haider, but I saved him by handing him over to the police,” he said.
Haider’s arrest could not have come at a worse time for the family: his father, Talad, was in hospital following a heart attack. Faisal asserted that if the family had gone to the police, Haider would have been released. Instead, the teenage boy was sent to jail. The family had to sell some of their possessions to raise money for a lawyer, but the lawyer did nothing to get Haider released.
Despite the long distance to the jail, Muqadesh would visit her son there every week and take him food. But after Talad’s health problems caused him to lose a leg – and his work as a rikshaw driver – she could only afford to visit Haider once a month.
CSI has been providing financial support to Haider’s family since learning of the case through its local partner in Pakistan. The family was able to buy a sewing machine and start a tailoring business that enables them to earn a living. Because of the blasphemy allegations against Haider, CSI also helped the family to move to a safer location.
CSI’s partner, Anjum, engaged an advocate, Rana Abdul Hameed Khan, to try to win Haider’s release. Although Haider was a minor, the courts were unwilling to release him since he was charged with the serious crime of blasphemy. Finally, on October 20, thanks to the new lawyer’s efforts, the Supreme Court acquitted Haider and ordered his release.
“Today I am free and reunited with my family, thanks to the kind support of CSI,” said Haider.
In a letter dated November 23, 2022, CSI International President Dr. John Eibner called on then Pakistani Justice Minister Sardar Ayaz Sadiq to drop the blasphemy charges against 10 Pakistani citizens, including Haider Ali.
Eibner argued that “charges of blasphemy are habitually leveled in Pakistan by police officers and other complainants against innocent people for the purposes of revenge or other forms of unworthy personal satisfaction.”
Under Section 295 of Pakistan’s Penal Code, blasphemy is a capital offense. Since Pakistan’s current blasphemy laws came into force in 1987, nearly 2,000 people have faced blasphemy accusations; 78 people have been extrajudicially murdered after being accused.
The blasphemy laws have created a climate of impunity for religious terror in Pakistan. Bad actors can easily weaponize false blasphemy accusations, which are difficult to disprove. This is turn can fuel religious conflict as mobs take the law into their own hands.
Religious minorities and people of low social status are particularly vulnerable to abuses of the blasphemy laws and are often unable to afford a legal defense.