Pakistan Sentences Christian Man to Life in Prison for 'Insulting Islam'

Christians pray during a mass on Christmas Day at Fatima Church in Islamabad, Pakistan, December 25, 2016.
Christians pray during a mass on Christmas Day at Fatima Church in Islamabad, Pakistan, December 25, 2016. | (Photo: Reuters/Faisal Mahmood)

A court in Pakistan has sentenced a Christian man to life imprisonment under the country's blasphemy law for allegedly sending "blasphemous" text messages from his mobile phone.

After the court in the city of Rawalpindi in the Punjab province sentenced Zafar Bhatti on Wednesday, legal advocacy group CLAAS, which is based in the United Kingdom and run by Christians from Pakistan, said it will challenge the decision, according to the news website Christians In Pakistan.

The court overlooked lack of evidence, the group said.

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Bhatti, represented by CLAAS, has been in Adiala Central Jail since the accusation was made in 2012.

"The lower court's judges always hesitate to make decisions on the merit, or free people accused of blasphemy, and instead transfer their burden to the higher court without realizing how their decision will impact the accused and their families' lives," Nasir Saeed, director of CLAAS-UK, said in a statement. "Bhatti is innocent and will be freed by the higher court. But it will take several years for his case to be heard by the High court, and until then he and his family will continue suffering needlessly."

The Center for Research and Security Studies in Pakistan estimates that at least 65 people have been killed over blasphemy allegations since 1990, and dozens more convicted of the crime are on death row.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which are embedded in Sections 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code, carry the death penalty, and yet there is no provision to punish a false accuser or a false witness of blasphemy. Allegations of blasphemy often stem from the Muslim accuser's desire to take revenge and to settle petty, personal disputes, according to Christian groups working in the country.

In January, a 70-year-old Christian grandpa was arrested and beaten by police in an attempt to extract a confession after he was accused of writing letters that were deemed insulting to Islam. Now he could face years in prison or possibly death.

Mukhtar Masih and his family were taken into custody in the village of Lambanwali in the Punjab province on Jan. 28 after police stormed his home around 10 p.m. and informed him that a blasphemy case had been lodged against him. According to the accusation of local Muslim residents filed at the Rahwali police station, Masih allegedly wrote blasphemous messages with derogatory comments toward the Muslim prophet Muhammad and the Quran.

The London-based charity British Pakistani Christian Association reported at the time that that Masih was accused of pinning the notes on Gulzar Mosque. Qadri Shahbaz, the imam of the mosque, claimed to have found the note on Jan. 26 and two other local Christians were initially accused of writing the notes. But having been pressured, the two Christians reportedly incriminated Mukhtar and claimed he was the man who penned the note.

Meanwhile, in a more high-profile case, Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who was sentenced to death in 2010 on accusations of blasphemy, is awaiting appeal proceedings to begin.

In June 2009 while picking berries with a group of Muslim women in the town of Sheikhupura in the Punjab province, the women got upset that she drank from the same water bowl as them. An argument ensued, and the women went to police and accused her of saying something along the lines of "My Christ died for me, what did Muhammad do for you?" She was promptly arrested.

Her appeal hearing was delayed again after the nation's Supreme Court rejected a request for her case to be heard in early June, according to reports.

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