ISTANBUL (BP)–The Supreme Court of Pakistan went into its official summer recess during the week of June 11, dousing hopes that Christian death-row prisoner Ayub Masih’s final judicial appeal might be heard before sessions resume in September. Then, on June 17, judges of both the Supreme Court and the High Court of Pakistan issued an official notice that they had agreed to continue working through at least half of the recess period, Compass Direct news service reported June 19.
The office of Masih’s defense lawyer, Abid Hassan Minto, confirmed to Compass that the high-profile Christian prisoner’s appeal could still go before the Supreme Court during the summer months, although it was not very likely.
Compass cited a newspaper report that the Supreme Court, which had handed down 811 final rulings between Jan. 1 and June 12 this year, is backlogged currently with 4,911 appeal cases waiting to be heard.
Jailed since October 1996, Masih was accused of slandering the Muslim prophet Muhammad during an argument with a Muslim neighbor. Based on the uncorroborated testimony of one witness, his execution sentence was handed down in April 1998 by the Sahiwal Sessions Court.
His conviction was upheld last July by the Multan High Court, leaving one final appeal before the Supreme Court. Now 35, he has survived two attempts on his life while under trial and spent the last four years on death row.
Masih’s verdict from the nation’s highest appellate court will hinge on a single hearing. Minto told Compass in May that he would probably be given just one day’s notice to travel from his Lahore offices to Islamabad to argue the appeal. His client, currently incarcerated in Multan’s New Central Jail, will not attend the hearing.
Since this is the first case of alleged blasphemy ever to appear before Pakistan’s Supreme Court, local officials are expected to keep confidential the hearing’s date and time in Islamabad.
During previous hearings against Masih, extremist Muslim protesters packed the courtrooms of the Sahiwal Sessions Court and Multan High Court, shouting death threats against the defense lawyers and presiding panel of judges. To date, five Christian defendants have been killed while under trial for blasphemy in Pakistan, as well as one High Court judge who overturned convictions against two Christians.
Minto said he expects Ayub Masih to be acquitted on technical grounds, since the requirements for pre-trial examination of the prosecution witnesses required under Islamic law had been ignored at lower court levels.
“This will constitute a procedural change in itself,” Minto said, “because the Supreme Court judgment will be based on an inherent Islamic argument.” However, he admitted that institution of such a procedural change could set a worrisome precedent at lower court levels, in that once prosecution witnesses were ruled to be “trustworthy Muslims,” it would be difficult for a higher court to reverse the verdict.
At the same time, he said, there were grounds for the Supreme Court to rule on the merits of the case itself. “In the post-trial situation, we can see that the land Ayub Masih and his family were living on has been taken over by the complainant,” Minto noted. This fact alone, he said, was clear evidence that Masih’s accuser was motivated by personal monetary gain.
“If the court accepts this, then Ayub Masih must be acquitted,” Minto said.
“The fact that Ayub Masih’s appeal was accepted for hearing means that the Supreme Court has seen some serious flaws in the process of justice in the case,” said a representative of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a Catholic advocacy group handling the legal defense of Masih’s case.
In December of last year, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Ayub Masih had been “arbitrarily deprived of his liberty” and urged the Pakistan government to take steps to remedy his situation.
“The procedure conducted against Ayub Masih did not respect the fundamental rights of a person charged … coupled with the fact that under Pakistani law, blasphemy cases insulting the Muslim religion are compulsorily heard by Muslim judges,” the U.N. body declared. “Moreover, the threats and atmosphere surrounding his trial and appeal denied him any chance of having a fair trial.”
A resolution presented in the U.S. House of Representatives on Feb. 14 urged Pakistan to repeal the blasphemy law, along with constitutional provisions declaring members of the Ahmadi sect non-Muslims. But the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf declared publicly it had no intention of doing so, citing “consensus on these sensitive issues” within the country, despite mounting pressures from abroad.
None of the 10 other Christians currently jailed on alleged blasphemy charges in Pakistan have been given the death penalty, although several are appealing verdicts condemning them to life in prison.
“Once a person is given the title of ‘blasphemer,’ he is not safe any more, anywhere in Pakistan,” one Christian rights advocate remarked in May.
Used by permission of Compass Direct news service, at www.compassdirect.org.