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  • » 03/28/2014, 00.00


    Christian sentenced to death for blasphemy, Islamabad bishop calls for prayers for the persecuted

    Jibran Khan

    Sawan Masih's conviction came at the end of a trial held in prison because of a high risk of Islamist attacks. The Christian man's lawyers announce that they will appeal the verdict. Religious leaders and civil society groups express their anger and outrage over the court decision. For Bishop Rufin Anthony, "false accusations are an abuse." Asia Bibi's appeal hearing is set for 14 April.

    Lahore (AsiaNews) - A court in Lahore (Punjab) sentenced to death a Christian man based on (false) blasphemy charges. The violence sparked by the case last year saw Islamic fundamentalists set fire and destroy more than 150 Christian homes and two churches.

    Sawan Masih was convicted yesterday at the end of a trial that was held in the prison where he is detained. The authorities chose that venue in lieu of a public trial in a regular courtroom for security reasons. Police had warned them of a strong possibility that the accused might be attacked on his way to and from the prison.

    Additional Session Judge Chaudhry Ghulam Murtaza found the defendant guilty under Article 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code, and sentenced him to hang and pay a fine of 200,000 rupees (more than US$ 2,000).

    He also ordered the release on bail of the 83 people who took part in the attack against Joseph Colony Lahore (pictured). For him, only the Christian man was indictable in a case that has deeply shocked public opinion.

    Sawan's lawyers announced that they are going to appeal the conviction because the charges against Sawan Masih are false. According to the evidence, the then 26-year-old Christian man (pictured) went to a Muslim barber, Imran Shahid, for a haircut. The latter refused to serve him, and the two then got into a heated argument with the Muslim man attacking Christianity with offensive language.

    Eventually, Shahid and others went to a nearby police station to file a complaint against Masih under Article 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code, the so-called blasphemy law, claiming that the Christian man was drunk and had insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Shortly afterwards, the police arrested Masih.

    In the wave of violence that erupted in the aftermath of the incident, unidentified persons also desecrated the Shahbaz Bhatti memorial in the capital.

    Contacted by AsiaNews Mgr Rufin Anthony, bishop of Islamabad/Rawalpindi, said, "It is sad to see a death sentence imposed on patently false charges". Sawan Masih "is not every educated, and does not even know what he has been accused of," the prelate added. What is more, the attack on Joseph Colony "is a clear example of the abuse perpetrated under the blasphemy law."

    "Let us pray for Sawan Masih and Asia Bibi," the prelate noted, "both of whom are waiting for justice." Hence, "Next week we shall hold a day of prayer for the persecuted."

    For Fr John Arshad, who met Sawan's defence lawyers, the young man was "framed". For the clergyman, who is from the Diocese of Lahore, the court "completely ignored the facts and imposed the death sentence under pressure from extremists." Sadly, he noted, "justice has been denied in Pakistan."

    Many civil society groups are also opposed to the conviction. For Rizwan Paul, general secretary of the Masih Foundation and Life for All Pakistan, "an indictment for blasphemy by itself is equivalent to a conviction."

    "The blasphemy law," he explains, "has been used to settle personal scores. Some people got away scot free after making 150 families homeless whilst an innocent man is sentenced to death on false charges."

    He and others plan to hold a prayer and protest vigil this Sunday for both Asia Bibi and Sawan Masih,

    "We shall raise our voice against injustice," said Amir Agha, a human activist in Lahore who is going to take part in the rally to show solidarity with the Christian community.

    Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five children, is another victim of the blasphemy law, and is currently waiting on death row for a court to hear her appeal.

    In her case, the High Court seems to have finally set on a date, 14 April, for her first hearing (after two postponements). In the past, Islamist threats had pushed the court and the authorities to delay her trial.

    For years, the Catholic and Protestant Churches have been calling for the repeal of the 'black law'.

    Adopted in 1986 by then dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq to satisfy Islamist demands, the law imposes life in prison or the death sentence on anyone who desecrates the Qur'an or insults the Prophet Muhammad.

    In 2009, AsiaNews promoted an international campaign to raise awareness about the law. However, no political party or government has ever dared change it. Anyone who did - like Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, a Muslim, and Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic - paid for it with their life.

    According to data collected by the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Pakistan, at least 964 people were charged under the blasphemy law between 1986 to August 2009. They include 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 people of no known religion.

    In this same period, more than 40 innocent people fell victim to extra-judicial killings (by individuals or mobs). many of them mentally and physically disabled, or minors, like Rimsha Masih, who was saved from false charges after a massive campaign put pressure on Pakistani authorities.

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    See also

    23/07/2013 PAKISTAN
    Punjab: Catholic couple accused of blasphemy
    Shafqat and Shagufta Masih live in Gojra, a town in Punjab where eight Christians were burnt alive in 2009. Instead of investigating the affair, police forced the two to accept the charges. A local priest warns that "false allegations like this lead to years in prison for the innocent. Concrete steps must be taken once and for all to stop the misuse of the blasphemy law."

    21/07/2015 PAKISTAN
    Lahore: Two Christians arrested for blasphemy could get the death penalty
    The two brothers have been accused of posting disrespectful content on their website. After four years on the run abroad and at home, Qaisa and Amoon are now in the same Lahore prison. The Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) is dealing with their case.

    16/10/2017 12:28:00 PAKISTAN
    Punjab, three Ahmadi men sentenced to death on blasphemy charges

    The culprits are Mubasher Ahmad, Ghulam Ahmed and Ehsan Ahmed. “The court’s verdict was unfair,” says a spokesperson for the Ahmadi community. Last week, former Prime Minister Sharif’s son-in-law called for the social boycott of the “heretic” minority.

    09/02/2006 PAKISTAN
    Blasphemy law is a tool for Muslim proselytism, says Protestant bishop
    Speaking on a TV show, Rev Malik says that many blasphemy charges are plainly false. They "are just set-ups," he said. "Many Christians are threatened: You either convert to Islam or be judged under the blasphemy laws".

    22/05/2015 PAKISTAN
    Pakistan: 106 people on trial for the lynching of a Christian couple, accused of blasphemy
    An anti-terrorism court has indicted them for murder. Hundreds of people stoned to death and then burned alive Sajjad Masih and his wife Shama. The woman, pregnant with her fifth child, was accused of setting fire to pages of the Koran.

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