A trial court has sentenced a young Christian man to death for an alleged blasphemy that triggered a violent riot in Lahore in March 2013.
Sawan Masih was convicted of blaspheming against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) during the course of a conversation with a Muslim friend in the Joseph Colony neighbourhood of the Punjab provincial capital. More than 3,000 Muslims rioted, torching about 180 Christian homes in Joseph Colony, after the allegations against Masih emerged.
Naeem Shakir, one of Masih’s lawyers, told Pakistan Today that Additional Sessions Judge Chaudhry Ghulam Murtaza “got swayed by his religious passions” when handing the death sentence to the accused. Masih’s trial was conducted inside jail premises for ‘security reasons’.
“The case was very weak and the prosecution’s arguments were based on a flimsy FIR and conflicting statements of the witnesses, who are closely related to the complainant. Even the FIR was registered against Masih after an inordinate delay of 33 hours which could not be explained by the prosecution,” said Shakir.
He said that even the then chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry had rebuked the Lahore police for registering the case against Masih on such weak grounds. “The CJP conducted the suo motu hearing of the case on March 13, 2013 in which he lashed at the police officials for not investigating the case properly as the FIR did not mention any blasphemous remark. Two days later (March 15), the police forced the complainant Shahid Imran and the witnesses – his brother-in-law Shabbir Hussain and cousin Qasim Ali to give supplementary statements in which the alleged blasphemous remarks were added to their earlier statements,” said Shakir.
The lawyer said that he would challenge Masih’s conviction in the Lahore High Court next week. “I’m very hopeful that the High Court will annul the trial court’s verdict. Masih has a very good case for acquittal!” he said.
The prosecutor of the case was unavailable for comment.
LAND GRAB ATTEMPT:
Masih has maintained his innocence and argued the real reason for the blasphemy allegation was an attempt by local factory owners to evict local Christians from the area in a bid to grab their property.
No one was killed in the riot in Joseph Colony but the incident highlighted the sensitivity of blasphemy in Pakistan. About 97% of the 180 million population are Muslim, and even unproven allegations can trigger a violent public response.
Earlier this month, an angry mob set fire to a Hindu temple in the southern city of Larkana over the alleged desecration of a copy of the Holy Quran.
A recent report from a US government advisory panel said Pakistan used blasphemy laws more than any other country in the world, listing 14 people on death row and 19 others serving life sentences for insulting Islam.
In January, an elderly Briton was sentenced to death in Pakistan for blasphemy, though his lawyers said the court had failed to consider “overwhelming” evidence of his mental illness.
Pakistan has had a de facto moratorium on civilian hangings since 2008. Only one person has been executed since then, a soldier convicted by court martial.