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