08/23/2017, 16.25
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Christian teenager arrested on false blasphemy charges in Punjab

by Kamran Chaudhry

Asif Masih, 16, is in jail and his life is in danger. He came close to being lynched, and was saved only by police. An imam has accused him of burning the Qurʾān. The boy is “slightly mentally retarded," a Christian activist said. “He deserves the benefit of doubt.”

Lahore (AsiaNews) – Asif Masih, 16, was arrested in Pakistan’s Punjab province for allegedly burning pages of the Qurʾān. The law in his case is clear: he will stand trial for blasphemy and could get the death penalty.

The boy’s father has denied the charges saying that the boy was fixed up for economic reasons. Christian activists told AsiaNews that he is suffering from mental problems.

"The boy is a garbage collector and frantic,” said Cecil Shane Chaudhry, executive director of the National Justice and Peace Commission (NCJP) of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Pakistan. “He deserves the benefit of doubt. We hope sanity prevails and justice takes its course. After all, many Muslims have been pardoned for mistakenly insulting holy personages.”

The incident in question took place on 12 August 12 in Jamkay Chattha, a village near the town of Wazirabad. After the alleged misdeed, the boy was surrounded and violently beaten by an angry crowd of Muslims who accused him of blasphemy. He was saved by police, who arrested him.

The case against Masih was filed by the local imam, Arshad Ali, who said the young man "threw petrol on the pages of the Holy Qur'an and a Surah and set them fire on the steps of the mosque. Then he fled. We put out the flames, but the Qurʾān was burnt."

Masih’s family rejects the charges. The Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, a charity that helps persecuted Christians, was able to meet the boy’s parents and collect their testimony.

At the end of the visit, Joseph Francis, the NGO’s national director said: "Asif is a young illiterate and slightly mentally retarded."

According to the NCJP’s annual report, 17 people were accused of insulting Islam last year. Of these, ten were Muslims, six were Christians and one was Hindu. In 2015, 52 people were victims of the "black laws" on blasphemy.

The latter were introduced by India’s British rulers in 1860. These laws were inherited by Pakistan after the partition of India in 1947. They remained unused until 1980, until military dictator General Zia-ul Haq took over, and began giving the country a more religious connotation. Until then, punishment entailed three years in prison.

“In 1982, a separate clause was added for ‘wilful’ desecration of the holy book,” said Kakkazai Aamir, a writer and researcher. “In 1986, another clause was included recommending the death penalty or life imprisonment.”

Since 1987 and the introduction of the death penalty, 663 Muslims, 494 Ahmadis, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus have been charged.

"In all these cases, the blasphemy law was used to settle personal scores and had little or nothing to do with religion.”

"I think we should educate Pakistan's Muslims not to take the law into their own hands,” Aamir explained. “They should directly report [any cases] to the police. Their duty is to report, not do justice on their own. Education can be delivered through schools, colleges, mosques, social media, the press."

(Shafique Khokhar contributed to this article)

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