04/07/2014, 00.00
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Paul Bhatti: "We want concrete answers against unjust death sentences for blasphemy"

A couple from Gojra recently ended on death row for sending text messages to the local imam that contained insults against Muhammad. In this, as in the cases involving Sawan Masih and Asia Bibi, the charges are false, a tool to settle personal scores. In response to the situation, the bishop of Islamabad announces another day of fasting and prayer. Indian Christians also express their solidarity.

Islamabad (AsiaNews) - "We are sorry for what is happening in Pakistan. The All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) strongly rejects these sentences. Concrete answers are now needed, starting with smart lawyers who can represent" the defendants, said Paul Bhatti, a former Federal Minister for National Harmony and current APMA leader, who spoke to AsiaNews about recent death sentences imposed on Christians for (alleged) crimes of blasphemy.

The latest case case was reported this weekend. It involves a couple originally from Punjab, who are now on death row for allegedly sending a text message with insults against the Prophet Muhammad.

In recent past, the Catholic Church of Pakistan, along with Christian and Muslim activists, held several fasting and prayer vigils on behalf of Sawan Masih and Asia Bibi, two victims of the "black law", both sentenced to death and awaiting their appeal trial.

Last Friday, a court in eastern Pakistan sentenced a Christian couple to death for blasphemy.

Emmanuel and Shagufta Shafqat Kausar were found guilty of sending text messages to the imam of a local mosque with insults against Islam and the prophet Muhammad.  The alleged incident took place in July last year.

The couple, both in their forties, hail from Gojra and have three children. Held in Toba Tek Singh Prison, both strongly reject the allegations made by Muslim cleric Maulvi Hussain and have announced their intention of appealing their conviction.

In their case, the phone used in sending the text messages was reportedly lost a while ago and was no longer in the two Christians' possession.

Their case follows those of Asia Bibi and Sawan Masih.

Asia Bibi has become a symbol of the struggle against the "black law." On death row since November 2010, she has been held in solitary confinement for security reasons. After several postponements, her appeal trial should go ahead on 14 April.

Sawan Masih is 26-year-old Christian man. Personal disagreements with the plaintiff are behind the false charges against him. In his case, the appeal trial is scheduled for 25 July 2014 at the Lahore High Court.

"We need to find a good lawyer, if possible someone who is Muslim, to prove the accused's innocence," said Paul Bhatt, brother of Federal Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti who was killed by Islamic extremists in March 2011 for his opposition to the abuses perpetrated in the name of the blasphemy law.

Speaking to AsiaNews, Paul Bhatti, who heads the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) and now carries on Shahbaz's legacy, noted that it is necessary "to speak with influential Islamic figures" to get rid of the charges and bring out the truth.

"As of today," he said, "they are still guilty according to the police investigation and the judges who, under [fundamentalist] pressure, decided for [the death] sentence".

Bhatti said he was optimistic though, because "we still have several stages of appeal, up to the Supreme Court."

Still, as he did in other cases, he also blames NGOs and other groups who "live off these incidents and do more harm than good, by coming up with young and often poorly-paid lawyers, who carry little weight in court."

For the former minister, this is a "sad reality because these cases [of blasphemy] could be solved in a positive way," as was the case for Rimsha Masih on whose behalf Bhatti got personally involved.

"I recently contacted various imams and the federal minister for religious affairs," he explained. "We are at the beginning but with practical support and goodwill we'll make it."

The bishop of Islamabad/Rawalpindi also lashed out at the new blasphemy convictions. "It hurts to see that in just one week after the indictment, another couple was sentenced to death," said Mgr Rufin Anthony.

Nothing that all this is happening because of a text message, the prelate added, "This is not the first time someone is prosecuted for sending a text message".

In view of the situation, the bishop announced a new day of fasting and prayer next Wednesday "for all those imprisoned on death row."

The Masihi Foundation and Life for All Pakistan announced that they would join him in a "peaceful protest" on that day.

The echo of these incidents has also reached India, where many have repeatedly called for the release of innocent people who have nothing to do with the crime of blasphemy.

Sajan K George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), speaks of "unjust laws", the easiest charge "that can be made against someone" in order to get them convicted, so much so that over time the law has become abused "to settle personal scores."

For the Indian Christian leader, the charges in this case came again from an imam from a Gojra mosque, which has a "history of anti-Christian violence."

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