Rights Group Appeals for Release of Detained Pakistani Christian

According to reports provided to Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom, 60-year-old Yousaf Masih faces immediate danger from other inmates who have beaten him and are threatening to kill him.

The United States should press the government of Pakistan to release a jailed Christian citizen facing blasphemy charges and death threats and to immediately repeal its discriminatory blasphemy laws, Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom said today.

According to reports provided to the Center by 60-year-old Yousaf Masih's defense team, Masih faces immediate danger from other inmates who have beaten him and are threatening to kill him.

Masih, a Pakistani Christian, was arrested on June 28, 2005 in Nowshera, North-West Frontier Province, on the grounds that he desecrated the Koran. Under Pakistan's blasphemy laws, the offense carries a mandatory life sentence.

"The U.S. government considers Pakistan an ally in the war on terror but these blasphemy laws are a form of state-sponsored terror against its own people," said Center for Religious Freedom Director Nina Shea. "The U.S. should immediately reconsider its plans to sell F-16s to Pakistan until these laws are repealed and those accused of blasphemy are released from prison. Religious freedom is a keystone American value and a fundamental human right under international law."

The All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), a human rights group based in Pakistan assisting Masih in his defense, has reported that the superintendent of Masih's jail said that he fears "that any criminal in the jail may take an opportunity to kill him with an intention to inherit paradise and be forgiven."

Local Islamic organizations have held protest marches to demand the death penalty for Masih, prompting some local Christians to flee the area. Appearing distraught and with bruises on his body, Masih begged the APMA delegation who met with him in jail, "Save me, they will kill me," referring to other inmates.

A hearing to decide a bail application filed by APMA on Masih's behalf was postponed on July 12, 2005.

Masih has told the APMA that in the course of his work as a janitor he was asked to burn discarded documents of which he had no knowledge and which he could not read owing to illiteracy. Masih told the APMA he was falsely blamed.

The initial charges were brought against Masih by his Muslim neighbors. If the case goes to court, Masih's testimony, under Pakistan's sharia law, could be given half the weight of his neighbors' because he is not a Muslim.

"Pakistan's blasphemy laws violate due process and have been persistently used to persecute religious minorities, particularly Christians and Ahmadis, and to press personal grievances," said Shea. "These discriminatory laws should be abolished."

According to the Center, some 80 Christians are now imprisoned for blasphemy in Pakistan, and 650 persons, both Muslim and non-Muslim, have been falsely accused and arrested under the blasphemy laws since 1988, according to the Vatican's Zenit news service. Last year a police official murdered a Christian under custody in a hospital who was accused of blasphemy.