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Pakistani Christian sentenced to death for blasphemy

22 July 2022

ICFD (@icfdorg)

Ashfaq Masih

Ashfaq Masih

A PAKISTANI court has sentenced a Christian mechanic to death, five years after he was accused of blasphemy by a business rival.

The Court of Session in Lahore handed down the sentence on 4 July to Ashfaq Masih, who has been in prison since the accusation was made in June 2017.

Nasir Saeed, the director of the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, which supports persecuted Christians in Pakistan, said that Mr Masih’s brother Mehmood was “stunned” to arrive in court to find that, instead of hearing the arguments last week, the judge “just announced the judgment and handed a copy of the judgment” to him.

Mr Masih’s statement was included in the judgment. In it, the married father of one pleaded not guilty, and said that, shortly before the accusation was made, he had had an argument with a Sufi Muslim customer who had asked him for a discount on account of his religious beliefs. Mr Masih said: “I insisted for my bill and said that I don’t follow anyone other than Jesus, and so wasn’t interested in the man’s religious status.”

Mr Masih, then 34, said that the customer, Muhammad Irfan, went to the nearby shop of Muhammad Naveed, a mechanic with whom Mr Masih had argued a few days earlier. “After a few minutes, [Irfan] came back and turned the whole matter into religious affairs and started accusing me of committing blasphemy.

“People started gathering around my shop, and the owner, Muhammad Ashfaq, who had already asked me to vacate his shop, also arrived.”

Mr Naveed and Mr Ashfaq “complained to the police and the police registered a first information report under blasphemy law section 295C, which has a mandatory death penalty”, Mr Masih said. “The case against me is baseless, false, and frivolous, and framed against me just to destroy my business.”

Mr Saeed described the judgment as “very sad, yet expected”. In a statement, he said: “Because of pressure from the Islamic groups, lower courts’ judges are always hesitant to free the victims. . . [Masih] has already spent five years in prison for a crime he never committed.” Mr Saeed said that hearings for Mr Masih had been postponed “dozens” of times.

Lord Alton, who co-chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group [APPG] for Pakistani Minorities, said: “The APPG has expressed its concern to the authorities in Pakistan that the blasphemy law has repeatedly been used to falsely accuse people. . . At the very minimum, the law should be reformed so that vexatious cases are quickly weeded out, prosecutions only authorised by a senior prosecutor, those bringing false charges prosecuted for doing so, and the death sentence for blasphemy abolished.”

Mr Masih’s family plan to appeal.

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