Christians in Pakistan continue to be the victims of the country’s notorious blasphemy laws – suffering abuse, violence and imprisonment.
Christian Asif Pervaiz, a 37-year-old father of four, last year received the death sentence in Pakistan for allegedly sending ‘blasphemous’ text messages to a Muslim colleague in 2013.
After spending seven years in jail fighting his case, Asif was finally sentenced last September. The court in Lahore said that he did not offer enough evidence to prove his innocence, and ruled that he should first serve a three-year prison term for phone misuse, be fined 50,000 rupees (about £220) and then be ‘hanged by his neck till his death’.
Asif was charged with blasphemy in October 2013 after his former supervisor at a garment factory, Saeed Ahmed Khokhar, accused him of sending blasphemous text messages from his cell phone.
However, Asif maintained throughout that his supervisor had accused him only after he refused to convert to Islam. Asif’s lawyer Saiful Malook said the prosecution’s case was so weak that he could not understand why the judge had ruled against his client.
Malook previously represented Christian Asia Bibi – who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010 and released in 2018.
Asif said he had lost his SIM card some days before the alleged incident. Malook argued that Khokhar had used this SIM to send derogatory text messages to his own mobile phone.
‘It has become a norm of trial court judges hearing blasphemy cases to convict the accused – no matter how weak the prosecution’s case is’
While a First Information Report (FIR) was initially registered against an ‘unknown person’, Asif’s name was added to it later using a different pen, said his lawyer.
‘Although I’m greatly disappointed by the ruling in this case, one cannot ignore the fact that it has become a norm of trial court judges hearing blasphemy cases to convict the accused – no matter how weak the prosecution’s case is,’ said his lawyer, who has appealed against the conviction.
‘The worst thing in blasphemy cases is that the accused are left to rot in jail for years till their innocence is finally proved.’
Following the sentence, Asif’s wife Marilyn and their three children went into hiding, to protect themselves from attacks by militants.
Release partner Waseem visited Asif in Lahore District Jail shortly after his conviction, to encourage him and pray with him. ‘After that he was moved to Faisalabad, about 100 miles from Lahore, which has been more difficult. Now only his wife Marilyn can visit him,’ Waseem told Release.
‘We are helping to provide her basic needs, and also to give her help so she can visit her husband once a month – which otherwise would be a great financial challenge for her.’
‘Marilyn told me after a visit in February that Asif needs glasses because he is always reading his Bible in prison, and that he has now read through the Bible nine times! She says he is quite optimistic.’
‘Marilyn said that visiting her husband is quite a difficult process for her – so please pray that Asif is moved to a prison in Lahore,‘ said Waseem. ‘His lawyer has said that it may take another five years to resolve the case – so we must pray for his release as a matter of urgency. Pray too that God will protect Asif while he is in prison, and preserve his mental and physical health.’
Sources: Release International, Morning Star News.
PAKISTAN’S BLASPHEMY LAWS
Those convicted of blaspheming Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, potentially face the death penalty – although to date this sentence has never been carried out for blasphemy in Pakistan.
Even though all those convicted have eventually been released on appeal, this is typically only after the victims have endured many years of imprisonment while their cases proceed through the country’s labyrinthine legal system – causing untold anguish to prisoners and their families.
Accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan are common and often motivated by personal vendettas or religious hatred. The highly inflammatory accusations have the potential to spark mass protests and mob violence.
Many of those accused of blasphemy never reach the courtroom: 62 blasphemy-accused have been killed since 1990. Lawyers defending those charged with blasphemy, presiding judges, and individuals speaking against the law have also been targeted.
In Pakistan 24 Christians are currently in prison due to blasphemy charges. They are defendants in 21 blasphemy cases at various levels of the judicial process.
With no presumption of innocence in Pakistan, anyone accused of blasphemy can be jailed, often for years, while those who make false allegations go unpunished.
In 2018, a Pakistani Senate Special Committee on Human Rights and the Islamabad High Court recommended that those making false blasphemy accusations be given the same punishments as those for blasphemy convictions – but the government dismissed the idea. The committee also recommended that anyone registering a blasphemy case at a police station must bring two witnesses.
While sentences for blasphemy can range from several years in prison to death, a person making a false accusation faces potential punishment of only six months in prison or a fine of 1,000 rupees (about £4). Successive governments have acknowledged that the blasphemy laws are blatantly misused – but little effort has been made to stop the abuses.
Rights activists say it is unlikely that any government will move to repeal or amend the blasphemy laws due to fierce Islamic religious sentiments in the Muslim-majority country.
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