02/16/2009, 00.00
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Marginalization, threats, and misery for families charged with blasphemy

by Qaiser Felix
Arrests, fines, humiliations, lack of security, and possible attacks are typical for families whose members have been accused of blasphemy against the Qur'an. The case of James Masih and Boota Masih, sentenced to 10 years without any proof.

Faisalabad (AsiaNews) - Blasphemy does not affect only those who are accused of it, but also their families, reducing them to misery and condemning them to marginalization. Naveed Walter, president of the NGO Human Rights Focus Pakistan (HRFP), asserts that "their sufferings remain hidden, and do not reach the eyes and ears of the public."

As an example, Walter explains what happened to the families of James Masih, 70, and Boota Masih, 66, both accused by a neighbor, Arshad Mubarak, of burning a copy of the Qur'an in the street.

Walter points out that the accused are often ordinary people, not very well educated, and without the means of defending themselves. They are not aware of their rights, and are paralyzed by fear and lack of security, incapable of convincing the judges, who often issue sentences under pressure from Islamic extremists.

The families of those accused also face threats and pressure. In addition to this, there are economic repercussions. Boota Masih, father of five daughters and one son, was his family's only source of financial support. Since his father was arrested three years ago, 14-year-old Sabit Masih has been forced to work in a factory, and cannot go to school. He cannot even make friends among his coworkers because he is afraid that someone, hearing about the accusation of blasphemy against his father, could make him lose his job or try to kill him. All of the other members of the family live in the same state of fear and insecurity. One of the daughters, Nargis, worked as a maid in a Muslim household, but was fired because of her father's arrest.

The HRFP is trying to meet the basic needs of Christian families implicated in blasphemy trials, in part by providing defense attorneys.

In 2006, Boota Masih and James Masih were sentenced to 10 years in prison and a fine of 25,000 rupees. According to some who saw the trial, the sentence from the judge, Muhammad Islam, resulted only from fear of the extremists, since no evidence was presented. The HRFP has asked Khalil Tahir, a member of an NGO, to act as defense attorney and present an appeal against the sentence to the Lahore High Court. A judgment on the appeal is expected in the next few days.

According to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, at least 892 people have been accused of blasphemy since 1986. At least 25 people have been killed by extremists, even before they were sentenced. So far, the state has not commuted any of the death sentences for blasphemy cases.

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