FAISALABAD, Pakistan (Compass Direct News) – A young Christian shopkeeper was sentenced to a life term in prison and fined more than $1,000 last week following a dubious conviction of desecrating the Quran, according to Pakistan's National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP).
Peter Jacob, general secretary of the NCJP, said 22-year-old Imran Masih of the Faisalabad suburb of Hajvairy was convicted of desecrating the Quran (Section 295-B of Pakistan's legal code) and thereby outraging religious feelings (Section 295-A) by Additional District & Sessions Judge Raja Ghazanfar Ali Khan on Jan. 11. The conviction was based on the accusation of a rival shopkeeper who, as part of an Islamic extremist proselytizing group, allegedly used a mosque loudspeaker system to incite a mob that beat Masih and ransacked his shop.
Neighboring shopkeeper Hajji Liaquat Abdul Ghafoor accused Masih of tearing out pages of the Quran and burning them on July 1, 2009. Denying that he burned any pages of the Quran, Masih told investigators that the papers he burned were a heap of old merchandise records he had gathered while cleaning his store.
Masih's family members said Ghafoor fabricated the blasphemy case against him because of a business dispute. Nearby shopkeepers, initially reluctant to talk out of fear of reprisals but eventually speaking on condition of anonymity, told Compass that they had seen the two men arguing over business a few days before the incident occurred.
The shopkeepers said that when Masih burned the papers, Ghafoor started shouting that he had desecrated the Quran and blasphemed Islam and its prophet, Muhammad. In the case against Masih, police later accused Ghafoor of misusing the loudspeaker system of a mosque to stir up the mob.
"Ghafoor started shouting that Masih had desecrated the Quran and made blasphemous remarks about Islam and prophet Muhammad," said one of the shopkeepers. "Ghafoor spread misconceptions about Imran Masih, and a mob of angry Muslim men unaware of the facts attacked Masih and viciously beat him, looted his shop and later handed him over to police."
The shopkeepers added that Ghafoor was a hard-line Muslim and part of an Islamic proselytizing group.
Section 295-B of Pakistan's legal code, desecrating the Quran, is punishable by imprisonment for life. In accordance with Section 295-A (instigating religious hatred and outraging religious feelings), Masih was also sentenced to 10 years in prison and a fine of 100,000 rupees (US$1,170); if he is unable to pay the fine, he will be assessed an additional six months in jail.
A conviction for blaspheming Muhammad (Section 295-C) is punishable by death under Pakistani's notorious blasphemy laws. Widely condemned by the international community as easily invoked to settle personal enmities, Pakistan's blasphemy laws have come under review in recent months, but to no avail.
The laws are routinely invoked to harass members of minority communities. Additionally, while police cannot make arrests without a court-issued warrant for Section 295-A, they can arrest suspected blasphemers under sections 295-B and 295-C on the complaint of a single individual.
Masih is incarcerated at District Jail Faisalabad. Sources said he plans to appeal his sentence to the Lahore High Court.
"No pages of the Quran were burned or desecrated," said one member of Masih's family, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It was just a lame excuse to implicate him in a fabricated case of blasphemy."
Tahir Naveed Chaudhary, a Christian member of Punjab's legislative assembly and Sargodha zone head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), said Masih's case was just one in a long list of incidents in which blasphemy laws have been used to settle personal grudges. He said that APMA would provide legal assistance to Masih.