Elderly Christian in Pakistan dies before blasphemy trial

Members of the Pakistani Christian community carry wooden crosses and a casket during a demonstration to condemn the death of a Christian couple in a village in Punjab province on Tuesday, in Lahore November 5, 2014. | Reuters/Mohsin Raza

A 70-year-old Pakistani Christian who was arrested for blasphemy earlier this year has suddenly died before he could face trial for the charges.

Mukhtar Masih, who was accused of pinning a letter containing blasphemous messages to the door of a mosque in the village of Lambanwali, died on Thursday at Bagh Christian Hospital in Mansehra in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, where he was taken after he complained of a pain in the abdomen. An autopsy report has indicated that he had died of gastro-internal bleeding, according to the British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA).

"It is with great regret that I share this news as we were extremely confident that Mukhtar would be exonerated and that his reputation would once again become unsullied," said Mehwish Bhatti, lead officer for the BPCA in Pakistan.

"His distraught family have expressed great disappointment that Mukhtar Masih died with charges of blasphemy over his head. We are challenging our local MP's to call for a posthumous exoneration for a man who did not commit any crime. Mukhtar's only offence was the hurt he apparently caused to Muslims for adhering to the Christian faith," he continued.

Masih, along with his wife, children and grandchildren, were arrested and detained in January following the accusations of blasphemy. He denied the allegations and called on the authorities to examine the writing in the letter, but the police reportedly ignored the request.

According to BosNewsLife, all but Masih were later released but were forced to go into hiding. A court had granted bail to Masih in May, and the BPCA expressed its belief that he "had a real chance of overturning his false charges."

Local Christians have asserted that the charges against Masih were part of efforts by Muslim hardliners to seize his property.

Masih's family has insisted that he was innocent and called on the government to clear his name of the charges.

Christian groups working in Pakistan have contended that Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which carry the death penalty, are often used by accusers as a way to take revenge and to settle petty, personal disputes. The laws do not contain any provision to punish a false accuser or a false witness of blasphemy.

While Pakistan has not carried out an execution on anyone found guilty of blasphemy, several people accused of the crime have been killed before their trials ended.

At least 67 murders have been committed over unproven allegations of blasphemy since 1990, according to figures from a research center and independent records kept by Reuters.