Attorneys, Rights Groups Blast Death Sentence for Christian in Pakistan
Sawan Masih becomes second Christian on death row for alleged remarks.
LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – Rights groups and attorneys slammed the death sentence handed down to a Christian yesterday, saying the case for his blasphemy conviction was weak while Muslims who destroyed houses and shops in his neighborhood have been freed on bail.
Sawan Masih, now the second Christian on death row on blasphemy charges along with Asia Bibi, was sentenced by Lahore Additional District and Sessions Judge Chaudhry Ghulam Murtaza at the Kot Lakhpath Jail on Thursday (March 27). His trial took place at the jail due to security concerns. The street sweeper was also fined 200,000 rupees (US$2,027).
Accusations against Masih sparked the destruction of 180 Christian-owned homes and shops in Lahore’s Joseph Colony in March 2013; an anti-terrorism court freed the 133 Muslim suspects in spite of strong video evidence against them.
Masih, a young father of three, was accused of insulting the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, during a drunken conversation with a Muslim friend in the Joseph Colony area of Lahore on March 8, 2013. Naeem Shakir, the lead counsel for Masih, told Morning Star News after the verdict that it seemed Murtaza got “swayed by his religious passions” when handing the death sentence to Masih.
“The FIR [First Information Report] did not initially mention any objectionable remarks by Masih,” Shakir said. “The [blasphemy accusation] sentences were added eight days after the FIR was registered through a supplementary statement by the complainant on the police’s advice.”
The remarks were inserted two days after Supreme Court intervention in the case, he said. Shakir said that when the Supreme Court took up a supervisory role on a suo moto notice – on its own initiative, without formal petition from anyone else – on March 13, 2013, it rebuked Punjab Police for registering a flimsy FIR.
The lawyer with the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) said the FIR was not registered until 33 hours after the alleged incident, and that the prosecution was unable to account for the delay.
Seven witnesses recorded their statements against Masih during the trial, with two appearing in his favor. In his statement before the court, Masih said he committed no blasphemy and accused Shahid Imran, the complainant, of involving him in a fake case as part of a plot by local businessmen to use blasphemy allegations to drive Christians from Joseph Colony so they could seize it for industrial use.
“They hatched a conspiracy to push out the residents of the colony,” Masih told the court. “They contrived a case and got it filed by a person who was close to me. I am innocent.”
Shakir said that he would challenge Masih’s conviction in the Lahore High Court.
“I’m very hopeful that the High Court will annul the trial court’s verdict,” he said. “Masih has a very good case for acquittal.”
Tahir Bashir, another lawyer on Masih’s defense panel, told Morning Star News that he believed that Murtaza had convicted his client under immense pressure from local Muslim political and religious groups.
“In most cases involving blasphemy, it has been observed that the trial court judges are pressured by religious zealots to hand the maximum sentence to an accused,” he said, also expressing hope that Masih would be acquitted by the High Court.
Masih’s father, Chaman Masih, and brother, Saleem Masih, told Morning Star News they were extremely disappointed by the ruling.
“During the hearings of the case, the judge used to tell us that everything will be alright, but on Thursday he convicted my son on a completely fabricated charge,” Chaman Maish said. “This is sheer injustice with us.”
Saleem Masih was equally indignant.
“The Muslims burnt down our entire colony, yet only my brother has been given the death sentence and fined such a heavy amount,” he said. “Has the court done justice with us?”
On March 9, 2013, hundreds of protesters set ablaze two church buildings along with the shops and homes in Joseph Colony. The day before, police forced Christians to vacate their houses, saying otherwise they would also be attacked, but did little to avert the destruction.
An FIR was registered under the Anti-Terrorism Act against 83 people accused of the arson; a supplementary statement named 50 more in the FIR. The case is still pending in an anti-terrorism court while most of the accused have been set free on bail.
Joseph Colony residents and Christian rights activists assert that the local Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) lawmaker of the area, allegedly acting on the orders of the Punjab chief minister’s son, Hamza Shahbaz, played a central role in the attack on Joseph Colony to facilitate land-grabbing by local factory owners who supported him.
“The PML-N is directly responsible for the destruction of Joseph Colony,” said Rufus Solomon, a Christian rights activist with the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. “In the wake of the media hype over the incident, the government of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was forced to announce rebuilding of Christians’ houses and payment of compensation to them, but it was just a farce as elections were round the corner.”
He added that the Punjab Law Department’s attitude in pursuing the case against the arsonists also spoke of the ruling party’s intentions to give security to the country’s minorities.
“PTI’s Information Secretary and lawmaker Shireen Mazari condemned Masih’s conviction on the floor of the National Assembly on Friday,” Solomon said. “She also asked the Punjab government to explain what it had done to punish the arsonists, but the PML-N lawmakers failed to give any satisfactory answer.”
Pakistan Ulema Council Chairman Allama Tahir Ashrafi told Morning Star News he would not question the verdict against Masih but wanted to put a simple question before the courts: “Why haven’t the courts moved against the people involved in burning down Joseph Colony and desecrating the churches with the same vigor displayed while deciding Sawan Masih’s fate?”
Ashrafi said the selective judgment would further alienate the country’s minority groups, and that it was imperative that Muslims responsible for destroying Joseph Colony be punished for their crime.
“Such incidents tarnish Pakistan’s image in the world,” he said.
Rights groups have said the blasphemy law is often misused to persecute minorities and to settle personal scores.
Amnesty International today said Pakistan should immediately release Masih and quash his conviction.
“This is a travesty of justice,” said David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia Pacific Director, in a statement. “There are serious concerns about the fairness of his trial, and an argument between two friends is not a basis for sending anyone to the gallows. Sawan Masih must be released immediately and unconditionally.”
Vague formulation of the blasphemy laws, along with inadequate investigation by authorities and intimidation by mobs and some religious groups, has promoted vigilantism across Pakistan, especially in Punjab province, Amnesty said.
Speaking out for reform of the laws has brought death. On Jan. 4, 2011, Salmaan Taseer, then governor of Punjab, was killed by one of his own security guards after campaigning to have the laws reformed. Two months later, on March 2, 2011, Pakistan’s first Christian cabinet member, Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, was fatally shot in Islamabad for criticizing the laws.
Although Pakistani courts have ordered death sentences on a variety of charges, thousands of inmates have been parked on death row since a government moratorium on executions began in 2008. But since the election last year of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has publicly supported capital punishment, analysts have speculated that the government might move to hold executions.
Pakistan’s Statute 295-A forbids outraging religious feelings, 295-B forbids defiling the Koran and 295-C forbids defaming Muhammad, but parts A and B require that intent be shown in order to obtain a conviction. Defiling the Koran is punishable by life in prison (25 years in Pakistan), and defaming Muhammad is punishable by death with or without a fine.
Christians make up just 2.45 percent of Pakistan’s population, which is nearly 96 percent Muslim, according to Operation World. Religiously charged court cases commonly involve clamoring crowds of Muslims and other pressures coming to bear on lawyers and judges. On July 13, 2013, a court in Toba Tek Singh District, Punjab Province sentenced 29-year-old Sajjad Masih to life in prison after Islamist mobs clamored for a conviction for defaming Muhammad, in spite of the complainant retracting the accusation and admitting police pressured him into making it, according to Masih’s attorney (see Morning Star News, July 15).
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been used to falsely accuse other Christians. Karma Patras, a 56-year-old pastor released on bail after his accuser said he was mistaken in filing the complaint (see Morning Star News), was exonerated in June 2013.
Asia Noreen (also known as Asia Bibi), a Christian mother of five, was sentenced to death after being incarcerated on false charges of blasphemy since November 2010.
Blasphemy charges against Rimsha Masih, a girl whose mental age was determined to be less than 14 years old, were dismissed on Nov. 20, 2012 after a judge ruled that they were baseless (seeMorning Star News, Nov. 20, 2012). She has since been relocated to Canada.