WASHINGTON (BP)–A Pakistani Christian accused of blasphemy against Islam has been sentenced to two life sentences, under a law the United States has unsuccessfully urged the nation’s leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to repeal.
The sentence on Aslam Masih was handed down in the same week the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its third annual global report in early May, in which it said “grave violations of religious freedom” were still either being perpetrated or tolerated by Pakistan’s government, CNSNews.com reported.
Aslam Masih was arrested in 1998 and charged in Faisalabad under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which mandate heavy penalties for those convicted of defiling the Koran or blaspheming Islam’s founder, Mohammed.
The double life term was accompanied by a fine of 100,000 rupees ($1,670).
Critics say the law is deplorable and is easily exploited by any Muslim with a grudge against a Christian or member of another religious minority.
There have been reports of mobs rushing courtrooms to demand the death penalty, and some defense lawyers have been threatened or attacked. A judge was murdered in 1997 after acquitting two Christian defendants.
One example of the way the allegation of blasphemy can be used stems from the trial of the militants charged with kidnapping and murdering Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
The defense lawyer publicly accused the state prosecutor Raja Quereshi of blasphemy. “He ridiculed Islamic laws and the sayings of the prophet Muhammad and he did not show any respect in mentioning his name,” claimed lawyer Rai Bashir, adding that he would expect the blasphemy issue to be settled before the case against his clients went ahead.
The charge has most often been brought against Christians.
“Virtually no evidence above the word of a Muslim accuser is needed to bring a guilty verdict against a non-Muslim defendant,” the Barnabas Fund in Britain has noted. More than a dozen Christians have been convicted and jailed under the blasphemy law, and in several cases the death penalty has been handed down, although no Christian has yet been executed by hanging under the law. But rights campaigners say a number of Christians never even make it to trial, having been attacked by Islamic radicals and killed.
Once accused, said the Barnabas Fund, the Christian is “guilty forever in the eyes of Islamic extremists.”
Aslam Masih himself almost never made it to trial. Accused of defiling a Koran, he was severely beaten and stabbed by an angry mob before being hauled to a police station where the blasphemy case was opened more than three years ago.
Christians comprise about 1.7 percent of Pakistan’s 160 million people. Christian church growth is calculated at almost 4 percent, and many believers take the adoptive surname Masih (“Messiah”).
Nazir Bhatti, the U.S.-based founder of the Pakistan Christian Congress (PCC), said the Aslam Masih case was the latest in a string brought against Christians in Pakistan.
Of particular concern, Bhatti said, is the plight of another Christian, Ayub Masih, awaiting a final Supreme Court appeal in the weeks ahead after being sentenced to death by hanging in 1998 for blaspheming Mohammed.
The sentencing so deeply affected one Roman Catholic bishop that he shot and killed himself in a protest gesture outside the courthouse nine days later.
Another Pakistani, Manzoor Masih, was shot dead by armed attackers outside a Lahore courtroom in April 1994 while appealing against a conviction for writing derogatory graffiti. Amnesty International at the time said the graffiti claim seemed dubious, and the incident was likely sparked by a petty difference between Christian and Muslim neighbors over pet pigeons.
The most severe clause of the controversial 1986 law said any written or spoken words which “by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet (peace be on him), shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life.”
In 1990 the federal Shari’at (Islamic law) Court, in a decision binding on the government, ruled that the death penalty was the only appropriate punishment for blaspheming Mohammed.
Life sentences are still being handed down in cases like Aslam Masih’s, in which the defendant is accused of defiling the Koran rather than blaspheming Mohammed.
Bhatti said the PCC in 1997 filed an application to have the legislation repealed, but it was dismissed by a Lahore High Court judge.
The PCC then appealed the verdict, and that appeal went to the federal Shari’at Court in Islamabad, “to decide weather the implementation of Islamic laws is [an] Islamic or unIslamic act.” The case is pending.
Bhatti, who was petitioner in the lawsuit, was himself accused of blasphemy after leading a demonstration march in Karachi in 1997 to protest an attack by Muslims on a Christian village.
A legal complaint document called a FIR (first information report) handed to the police and containing the allegation remains valid, and he has since then lived in exile abroad.
Bhatti said the PCC continued to call for the repeal of the laws and freedom for all those accused under them.
Although Musharraf said he would do away with the blasphemy laws he inherited when he seized power in a 1999 coup, he has done nothing to reform or repeal them.
Human Rights Watch noted in its last annual report that Musharraf abruptly dropped plans to restrict the application of the laws after Islamic groups planned to hold protests against any attempt for reform.
Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom, said recently that Musharraf had not addressed “blasphemy and other laws that make non-Muslims second-class citizens.”
In its annual report released May 5, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom noted there had been some improvements in Pakistan’s record.
The government had worked to prevent extremist religious groups and schools from promoting violence or possessing weapons, it said, while also announcing plans to abolish a discriminatory separate-electorate system for religious minorities.
Nonetheless, it said “grave violations of religious freedom” were still occurring, and the commission was seriously considering whether Pakistan should be added to the short list of those designated “countries of particular concern” because of abuses of religious freedoms.
Countries currently in that category are Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and North Korea.
Goodenough is the Pacific Rim bureau chief with CNSNews.com. Used by permission.