A Chinese man arrested for blasphemy against Islam in Pakistan two weeks ago was released on bail on Friday — a very unusual arrangement in Pakistan, where people accused of blasphemy are almost never released before trial for fear of enraging Muslim lynch mobs.
The defendant, identified only by the name “Tian,” is a Chinese national who supervised the transportation department at Dasu Dam, Pakistan’s largest hydropower project. He was detained on April 18 and remanded to judicial custody after Pakistani workers on the project accused him of insulting Islam’s prophet Mohammed. He was also accused of insulting Islam by saying Muslim workers spent too much time praying on the job site.
The Pakistani water ministry awarded China’s Gezhouba Group Company the contract to construct the Dasu Dam in 2017. Many of the low-level workers on the project are locals, but most of the engineers and supervisors are Chinese. The Chinese workers mostly live in a camp on the construction site, which was hit by a massive fire in early April reportedly caused by an electrical short circuit.
In July 2021, terrorists killed nine of the Chinese engineers working on the Dasu project in a bus bombing. Pakistani officials initially tried to write the bus explosion off as a mechanical failure but investigated it as a terrorist attack after enormous pressure from Beijing, which threatened to withhold Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) funding for Pakistani projects unless Islamabad took steps to protect Chinese workers. Pakistani investigators said in August 2021 that the bombing was perpetrated by Pakistani Taliban Islamist militants with support from the Indian and Afghan governments, a charge hotly disputed by both of those parties.
This history provides some context for the highly unusual grant of bail by an Abbottabad anti-terrorism court to the Chinese defendant, transferred to an undisclosed location with great secrecy after posting a bond of 200,000 Pakistani rupees (about $700 U.S.) The judge who granted the bond was not allowed to see the defendant.
Judge Sajjadd Ahmad Jan’s ruling acknowledged that Pakistani law stipulates “death or imprisonment for life,” along with heavy fines, for anyone who “defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed.”
Human rights organizations around the world have long criticized Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, which make it easy for accusers to file dubious complaints to get revenge – for example, a group of disgruntled employees could accuse a foreign supervisor of blasphemy to punish him for reprimanding them.
No one has actually been executed by the State, but many defendants have been murdered by angry mobs. Lynch mobs have also killed a Pakistani governor and government minister who called for amendments to the blasphemy laws.
The judge suggested the blasphemy case against Tian might have been a “misunderstanding” caused by poor linguistics. The ruling pointed out that the four Pakistani employees of the hydropower project who accused the Chinese man of blasphemy could not produce any corroborating witnesses. One of the complainants was a translator who told the court he was about 40 feet away when the blasphemous comments were allegedly made, so he might have misunderstood what was said.
The Islamic clerical council in the Dasu area responded by asking for the translator who supposedly got Tian accused of blasphemy by mistranslating his words to be arrested and charged with making false accusations to incite violence.
“We are patriotic Pakistanis and would never allow anybody within the country, or outside, to sabotage the Dasu Hydropower Project at any cost,” the imams said.
The court said it could take several months for Tian’s case to be wrapped up, but did not indicate whether he would be expected to appear in court again, or if he has been ordered to remain in Pakistan.
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