By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)-- A Pakistani Christian has been sentenced to death by a court in eastern Pakistan for allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad in text messages, a human rights official, and his lawyer said.
Nadeem James, 35, was detained in July 2016 on charges of "blasphemy" when a friend accused him of sharing a poem ridiculing the Islam's revered prophet on the Whatsapp messaging service.
Lawyer Riaz Anjum told reporters that his client intended to appeal against the verdict, passed on Thursday, September 14, by a sessions court in the town of Gujrat.
The Pakistan-based advocacy group Legal Evangelical Association Development (LEAD) expressed doubts about the verdict.
It said complainant Yasir Bashir approached local police amid Muslim anger about the Christian man's relationship with a Muslim. "According to the family of the convicted man, Nadeem James has been embroiled in this blasphemy case because he married a Muslim woman," said LEAD Director Sardar Mushtaq Gill.
Pakistan's controversial blasphemy legislation has often been misused to settle personal disputes, according to Gill and other rights activists.
Gill told BosNewsLife that the Christian fled after his friend reported the alleged blasphemous messages to police. He said the Christian later returned after "police detained his two sisters," to pressure him.
"His trial concluded when...Judge Irfan Haider sentenced him to death along with a fine of 300,000 Pakistani rupees ($3,000)," Gill explained. "In a 28-page ruling, the court stated that Nadeem James had sent blasphemous Whatsapp messages to Yasir Bashir."
The trial is the latest in a series of cases against Christians and others accused of blasphemy. Rights groups have urged the government to overturn the laws which they say contributed to an atmosphere of hatred.
Pakistan has seen at least 67 murders over unproven allegations of blasphemy since 1990, according to several estimates.
In March 2011 gunmen shot and killed Shahbaz Bhatti, the minority affairs minister and the only Christian member of the cabinet, who publicly challenged the country's controversial blasphemy laws and demanded more rights for minority Christians.
Two months earlier, a bodyguard assassinated Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer after he called for the blasphemy laws to be reformed. Taseer’s killer, executed last year, was hailed as a martyr by religious hardliners.
Last April student Mashal Khan was beaten to death at his university in Mardan following a dorm debate about religion. Police detained over 20 students and some faculty members in connection with the killing.
Since then, Pakistan's Parliament has considered adding safeguards to the blasphemy laws.
Observers viewed that as a groundbreaking move given the emotive nature of the issue in the Islamic nation.