(ADDS COMMENTS FROM AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL, MORE CASES, BACKGROUND)
By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
LAHORE, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– A court in Pakistan has sentenced a Pakistani Christian man to death for blasphemy against Islam, in a case that sparked a local riot and international concerns over the country’s blasphemy legislation, a lawyer involved in the case told BosNewsLife Thursday, March 27.
Sawan Masih, a Christian road sweeper from the city of Lahore, was to be executed by hanging and also fined 200,000 rupees, confirmed lawyer Sardar Mushtaq Gill, director of the Legal Evangelical Association Development (LEAD) advocacy group.
“Masih was convicted of insulting Islam’s Prophet Mohammad during the course of a conversation with a Muslim friend in the [mainly Christian] Joseph Colony neighborhood of Lahore city in March last year,” Gill said.
Last year in March, “More than 3,000 Muslims rampaged through Joseph Colony, torching two Churches and more than 100 Christian homes, after the allegations against Sawan Masih emerged,” he added.
No one was killed in the rampage through Joseph Colony last year but the incident highlighted the sensitivity of blasphemy in Pakistan.
Naeem Shakir, another lawyer for Sawan Masih, said a judge announced the verdict during a hearing at the jail where the trial has been held “out of fears that Masih might be attacked” on his way to court.
Shakir said he would appeal. A date for that hearing was not immediately announced.
Pakistan has never executed someone for defaming Islam, but crowds angered over blasphemy accusations have been known to take the law into their own hands and kill those they suspect of violating it.
Once an accusation is made it is extremely difficult to reverse, in part because law enforcement personnel do not want to appear to be going easy on suspects. according to trial observers and Christians.
Pakistan has extremely strict laws against defaming Islam, including the death penalty for insulting the Prophet Mohammad, and rights campaigners say they are often used to settle personal disputes.
Masih, 35, has maintained his innocence and argued the real reason for the blasphemy allegation was a property dispute between him and his friend.
In a reaction, rights group Amnesty International (AI) condemned the sending to death of Masih.
“This is a travesty of justice. There are serious concerns about the fairness of his trial, and an argument between two friends is not a basis for sending anyone to the gallows. Sawan Masih must be released immediately and unconditionally,” said David Griffiths, AI’s deputy Asia Pacific director.
The vague formulation of the blasphemy laws, along with “inadequate investigation by authorities and intimidation by mobs and some religious groups, has promoted vigilantism” across Pakistan, especially in the northeastern state of Punjab, AI explained in a statement.
AI recalled that Sawan Masih’s arrest provoked a two-day riot in his Christian neighbourhood in Lahore, where a 3,000-strong mob burned “around 200 homes of Christians.”
Police were warned of the impending attack but failed to take adequate measures to protect the community, Christians said at the time. Although dozens of the suspected perpetrators have been charged, nobody has yet been convicted, according to AI and other rights investigators.
“A riot should never have been allowed to effectively destroy of one of Lahore’s oldest Christian neighbourhoods,” Griffiths said.
“Sawan Masih’s harsh treatment under the law is in stark contrast to how others suspected of deliberately burning down people’s homes have not yet been brought to trial. It sheds light on discrimination against Christians and other religious minorities through blasphemy laws and Pakistan’s justice system in general,” he added.
The verdict raised concern about the plight of Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of five, who has been detained since 2009 and appealed against her death sentence. This week, “the next date of hearing was fixed for April 14,” said lawyer Gill who was in the Lahore court room.
Despite the setback in Masih’s case, he said he remains hopeful Bibi’s sentence will be overturned.
“We are very hopeful for the best of Asia Bibi’s acceptance of appeal because the atmosphere in the Court was very amicable and peaceful,” Gill told BosNewsLife.
Westerners have been targeted too. In January an elderly Briton was sentenced to death in Pakistan for blasphemy, though his lawyers said the court had failed to consider “overwhelming” evidence of his mental illness.
Mohammad Asghar was detained in 2010 after a disgruntled tenant living in his property went to police with unsent letters allegedly written by Asghar in which he claimed to be the Prophet Mohammad.
Rights activists have called for the release of the 69-year-old grandfather from Edinburgh, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 2010 before leaving Britain for Pakistan.
British officials reportedly visited Asghar, a Muslim, at Adiala high-security prison in Rawalpindi and raised the case with the Pakistani government.
In a recent statement, Fred Drummond, director of the Evangelical Alliance of Scotland, said the case underscored that the blasphemy law should be scrapped.
“It is irrelevant whether Mr Asghar is a Christian or not,” he said. “What is relevant is concern over the misuse of the law which has been raised by numerous people including Pakistani politicians.”
Some 97 percent of the 180 million population are Muslim, and even unproven allegations can trigger a violent public response, Christians say.
Earlier this month an angry mob set fire to a Hindu temple in the southern city of Larkana over the alleged desecration of a Koran. And, two politicians, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salman Taseer, and Christian federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti, were assassinated in 2011 for criticizing the country’s blasphemy legislation.
A recent report from a U.S. government advisory panel reportedly said Pakistan used blasphemy laws more than any other country in the world, listing 14 people on death row and 19 others serving life sentences for insulting Islam. (With reporting from Pakistan).
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is ‘Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals’ since 2004).
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