Pakistan: Court Overturns Life Sentence for Christian

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Another ‘blasphemy’ suspect, Shahid Masih, is freed on bail.
by Shahbaz Masih

ISTANBUL, January 22 (Compass Direct News) -- A Pakistani court last week acquitted a Christian “blasphemy” prisoner on grounds that the convict was mentally unstable, while another Christian facing the same accusation was released on bail.

Justice Muhammad Ijaz Chaudhry overturned Shahbaz Masih’s life sentence at a Lahore High Court hearing on Friday (January 19), citing evidence that the Christian was mentally handicapped. He has been incarcerated for more than five years.

The judge also noted that no one had seen Masih, 28, commit the alleged crime, defense lawyer Khalil Tahir Sindhu said.

A Faisalabad court condemned the Christian to 25 years in prison in September 2004 for allegedly tearing up a Quran in a Muslim graveyard in Faisalabad.

Though psychiatrist Dr. Pervez Ahmed had testified under oath that Masih suffered from a “bipolar effective disorder,” the mentally unstable man was found guilty under sections 295 A and B of Pakistan’s Penal Code, two of the country’s blasphemy laws.

Defense lawyer Sindhu told Compass that tomorrow he plans to secure his client’s release from Faisalabad District Jail’s mental ward, where he has been jailed since June 4, 2001.

‘I will get him tomorrow and keep him in a secret place,” Sindhu said, noting that his client’s life may still be in danger from Muslim fanatics angered by the verdict.

Threats from radical groups have forced Masih’s family into hiding several times during the case. More than 60 armed Muslim clerics were present at the Christian’s final Faisalabad court hearing in 2004, chanting slogans and praising the judge and Islamic law when he was found guilty.

Sindhu remains uncertain whether Masih will eventually be reunited with his parents and five siblings in Lahore. The Catholic lawyer said he hoped his client would be able to obtain refugee status abroad.

Second Released Christian in Danger

Another Christian in Faisalabad went into hiding last week while awaiting a court decision over accusations that he defiled the Quran.

Faisalabad Judge Muhammad Tanveer Akbar granted Shahid Masih bail, saying that evidence against him was only “circumstantial,” said Sindhu, who is also defending this “blasphemy” suspect.

Sindhu’s legal aid organization, ADAL Trust, posted bail for the 17-year-old’s release using a property title deed worth 100,000 rupees (US$1,644).

“Even after getting bail, I do not feel safe, because I have to live in hiding,” Shahid Masih told Compass by telephone from Faisalabad today with the help of a translator.

Muslim fanatics have followed the Christian’s case since he and a Muslim friend were accused of tearing pages from a book containing Quranic verses and their Urdu translations last September.

“He is in danger for his life, because they [the fanatics] are very emotional and feeling that this is unjust that he has been granted post-arrest bail,” Sindhu said. He added that the young man and his family are only able to meet secretly at night.

Shahid Masih is one of only a few Pakistani Christian blasphemy suspects to obtain post-arrest bail from a lower court. Most blasphemy prisoners spend years in prison before an Additional District and Sessions Judge decides their fate.

“Generally, we do not request bail because of security,” commented Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the National Commission for Justice and Peace. Jacob, an expert on blasphemy cases, pointed out that Christian blasphemy suspects are often safest in prison under police protection.

But even in prison, blasphemy suspects may face danger. “When I was sent to jail, I was beaten by my fellow prisoners before they put me in an isolation cell,” Shahid Masih told Compass.

The blasphemy suspect’s mother has suffered from depression since her son’s arrest last September.

“I am very sick, but I am happy to see my son,” Alice Masih told Compass from an undisclosed location in Faisalabad where she and her husband were visiting Shahid Masih.

Due to his own work with blasphemy prisoners, much of it pro bono, Sindhu and his family have faced ongoing threats. The lawyer’s wife and sons have temporarily gone into hiding to avoid attack.

Last month State Minister Tariq Azim hinted that “minorities would hear the ‘good news’ of amendments to the blasphemy law this Christmas,” the English-language Daily Times reported on December 25. Concrete amendments have yet to materialize.

Copyright © 2007 Compass Direct