District Headquarters Hospital Faisalabad is a 570-bed hospital in the second-largest city in the Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province. Like all hospitals in Pakistan, it is under pressure from the Covid-19 pandemic, but it has excellent facilities and trained staff.

Its modern appearance made it all the more surprising that two Christian nurses have been accused of blasphemy against the Qu’ran by their colleagues, found guilty by a hospital tribunal, beaten, fired from their jobs, charged with violating section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code and jailed.

In Pakistan, there are effectively three outcomes for victims of an allegation of blasphemy: guilty (and blasphemy is punishable by life imprisonment), innocent (which is unlikely because judges fear assassination), and rotting in jail for decades while their lawyers appeal the verdict.

Unhappily, the two women, in charge nurse Maryam Lal and third year student nurse Navish Arooj, must face the prospect of rotting in jail.

Why? For the absurd and possibly fabricated charge of scribbling on a Post-It note.

Maryam Lal, a Christian nurse accused of blasphemy, being beaten and abused by her colleagues. Supplied by Khalil Tahir Sandhu.

According to Mirza Muhammad Ali, a doctor at the hospital, he was told by a nurse named Rukhsana that Navish had scribbled on a sticker inscribed with verses from the Qu’ran. After removing it from the wall, she handed it to Mariam.

A young ward boy, Muhammad Waqas, also claimed that Mariam had torn up a Post-It – so he attacked her with a knife. He failed in his intention, which was to kill her on the spot, and only injured her. “Would you or anyone remain silent in the face of a blasphemy against our holy prophet Muhammad?” he says in an inflammatory speech in a Facebook video.

The two women were verbally and physically abused by the staff and taken away by police. A crowd had already formed around the hospital crying for them to be killed. It was only with difficulty that the police managed to bundle them into a car and drive them away.

The two nurses being bundled into a police van in the middle of a mob. Supplied by Khalil Tahir Sandhu.

MercatorNet spoke with a Catholic lawyer who may be representing the two women, Khalil Tahir Sandhu. He is also a member of the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab and served as Minister for Human Rights and Minorities Affairs from 2008 to 2013. One reminder of the danger of such a position is that his Federal ministerial counterpart, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated in 2011 for campaigning against Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws. (His cause of beatification has been started by the local Catholic Church.)

Mr Sandhu has shifted his wife and children to London because his commitment to defending Christians in blasphemy cases makes it dangerous for them to live in Pakistan. He will be flying back to the Punjab to work on a defence for the two nurses.

It will not be easy. In another of his cases, an illiterate Catholic couple, Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagfuta Kausar, were charged with blasphemy in 2013 and sentenced to be hanged in 2014. They are still in jail, awaiting the results of numerous appeals.

In the case of Maryam Lal and Navish Arooj, who are also Catholics, the facts are far from clear. It could be a case of workplace bullying or jealousy. Why was a member of the hospital staff brandishing a knife in a hospital, asks Mr Sandhu. In Pakistan, carrying weapons is a terrorist offence – but no one seems concerned about such details.

From outside Pakistan, the offence seems utterly trivial; inside the fiercely Muslim country, the smallest slight can be incendiary. But this makes the guilt of the two nurses even more improbable. They were known to be Christians. Why would they risk their lives to insult the Qu’ran? But, as Mr Sandhu notes, “In our country, what so often happens is that they first arrest the accused and only later do they check the evidence.”

Even if a person wins an appeal, there are no penalties for fake complaints and perjured witnesses. There is no compensation for the lost years, the lost opportunities, the lost loved ones.

Last December, Imran Masih, a Catholic from Faisalabad, was finally freed after being sentenced to life imprisonment in 2009 for blasphemy. His parents died while he was in solitary confinement in Faisalabad Central Jail.

Mr Sandhu was his lawyer. “It is excellent that Imran has been acquitted of all the charges against him,” he said bitterly, “but the question I must ask is who is responsible for his having to spend more than 11 years behind bars for a crime he never committed.”

The notorious Section 295-B was added to the Pakistani Penal Code in 1982. It made defiling the Koran a criminal offence: “Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Koran or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.”

Speaking to the Pakistan Christian Post, Nasir Saeed, of the UK-based Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, said that the country’s blasphemy law was being abused constantly.

“In the past we have seen how people use this law to settle their personal grudges or punish their rivals. I still remember 2009 when a Lahore Muslim factory owner was accused of committing blasphemy for removing an old calendar inscribed with holy Quranic verses from a wall. A factory worker killed him and two other men, and the enraged mob also assaulted management employees and set the factory on fire. According to some reports, last year 200 people were charged with blasphemy, while two people were killed.”

He said that: “Pakistani politicians and Islamic Scholars must sit together and make changes or bring new legislation to stop the ongoing misuse of the blasphemy law.”

Mr Sandhu urges people to write to the ambassador of their country in Pakistan to protest the jailing of Maryam Lal and Navish Arooj. International publicity will help put pressure on the government and judiciary for justice. (Sign a change.org petition here.)

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet