Pakistan: Rights Groups Decry Death Sentence for Christian

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

By Joseph DeCaro, Worthy News Correspondent

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (Worthy News)-- Rights groups have decried the death sentence handed down to one Christian man after more than 100 Muslims who destroyed his neighborhood were freed on bail.

Sawan Masih was sentenced Thursday for blasphemy by the Lahore District Judge at the Kot Lakhpath Jail. Initial Islamic outrage against Masih's alleged blasphemy resulted in the destruction of 180 Christian-owned homes and shops in Lahore's Joseph Colony in March 2013, but a court later freed 133 Muslim suspects despite damning video evidence against them, according to Morning Star News.

Masih, a father of three, was accused of insulting Islam's prophet during a drunken conversation with a Muslim friend in the Colony back on March 8, 2013. Pakistan's Statute 295-C forbids defaming Muhammad, which is punishable by death and/or a fine, but the First Information Report initially didn't include any blasphemous remarks made by Masih, according to Naeem Shakir, Masih's lead counsel. The blasphemy accusation was added through a supplementary statement by the complainant eight days after the FIR was registered.

Tahir Bashir, another lawyer on Masih's defense team, told Morning Star News that he believed the court 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.

In his court statement, Masih said he didn't commit blasphemy and accused Shahid Imran, the complainant, of involving him in a fake case as part of a plot by local businessmen to drive Christians from Joseph Colony so that they could seize the property 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."

On March 9, 2013, hundreds of protesters attacked the Joseph Colony, setting two church buildings ablaze along with shops and homes. An FIR under the Anti-Terrorism Act was registered against 83 protestors accused of arson and a supplementary statement named 50 more. The case is still pending while most of the accused have been freed on bail.

"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?" Pakistan Ulema Council Chairman Allama Tahir Ashrafi told Morning Star News.

Amnesty International said Pakistan should immediately release Masih and reverse his conviction.

"This is a travesty of justice," said David Griffiths, Amnesty International's Deputy Asia Pacific Director. "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."