WHEN I was six years old, my father would often take me and my brother to Model Town Park in Lahore for a walk.
We’d lace up our little running shoes, take a brisk lap or two around the track, and sit down on a grassy hill near the centre to catch our breath. It was lush green as far as the eye could see from that hill. Some peacocks roaming outside their enclosure. Paddleboats drifting on an artificial lake in the distance. Sometimes you could see the sunset reflecting on the water. Every time, it was beautiful.
I’ve grown older since then, and Model Town Park has too. If you go there today, you’ll probably see teens filming TikTok videos, children and their grandparents having picnics, large groups doing yoga, and women occupying public space in equal numbers as men. Within it all, you’ll see a Pakistan that is inclusive, tolerant, and taking some time out to enjoy the little things.
In 2020, the pandemic turned my occasional visit to this park into a daily morning routine. In 2021, the hopefulness it had grown to personify over the years suffered a deep wound.
The legal system robbed him of a year’s worth of sunsets.
Early that year, I read in the news that two Christian men had been arrested from Model Town Park after an argument. The alleged crime carried the death penalty. It takes little imagination to guess what it was. Details were fuzzy (as they tend to be in cases like these), but arrests were made, and with time, they were forgotten.
That is until this month, when the bail petition for one of the accused reached the Supreme Court. In a landmark judgement reported as ‘Salamat Mansha Masih vs the State’, a two-member bench comprising Justices Qazi Faez Isa and Syed Mansoor Ali Shah provided some clarity.
It unfolded therein that the incident had started with the Christian men offering the complainants a book. The prosecution alleges that they then “intentionally started preaching Christianity”, implying that this is a crime. But, as the Supreme Court judgement points out, Article 20 of the Constitution safeguards every citizen’s fundamental right to “profess, practise and propagate his religion”.
The judgement uses Islamic jurisprudence to dissect the veracity of the allegations. It was found that the accused had been charged under sections of the Pakistan Penal Code that he wasn’t even alleged to have violated. Furthermore, he wasn’t a preacher (as the prosecution had suggested), but a sweeper employed with the Lahore Waste Management Company. And despite the incident taking place in a busy, public area, the prosecution case rested solely on the testimony of four friends, with no other witnesses coming forward.
The judgement ultimately held that according to Islamic jurisprudential principles and the constitutionally guaranteed right to fair trial, when there is only the improbable oral testimony of witnesses in an offence relating to religion, there must be corroboration. No incriminating material was recovered from the accused. There was no corroboration. Thus, he was admitted to bail.
In many ways, this judgement unravelled the extent to which Pakistan’s legal system is rigged against its most vulnerable citizens. I don’t like using the word ‘minority’ — it emphasises a community’s existence as the ‘other’, defined by its exclusion from the majoritarian norm. The Constitution never uses the word in a solely religious context either, because those of other faiths are equal citizens of Pakistan. That the Salamat Masih judgement recognises this is its greatest strength: it makes no novel innovations, choosing simply to extend protections of Islam and the Constitution, with the understanding that crimes which invoke harsh punishments and enflame public passions require more meticulosity from the justice system, not less.
Once you finish reading the judgement (it’s available in English and Urdu on the Supreme Court website), a realisation sets in: a Christian sweeper walked up to a stranger in a park and offered them a book. For this simple act and an unsubstantiated allegation, he spent over a year of his life in jail, awaiting a seemingly inevitable death penalty.
To attempt to justify such cruelty — to not speak out against it — isn’t just heartless. It is to be ignorant of Islam. The judgement quoted a range of hadith and Islamic scholarship to back its decision. But even if you don’t have the time to delve into research, one thing should be clear to all of us.
This man deserved better. In his childhood, his father might have brought him to Model Town Park too. In his mind, it might have represented tolerance and safety. He cleaned his country every day, and in return, its legal system robbed him of a year’s worth of sunsets.
A Supreme Court judgement has secured him his freedom for now. May it also reassure Pakistani citizens of all faiths that Model Town Park is theirs to enjoy just as much as it is anyone else’s. So is the rest of this country.
The writer is a lawyer and columnist from Okara, based in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2022