Christian in Pakistan Sent to Prison for 'Blasphemy,' in Spite of Accuser's Retraction
Clamoring Islamists pressure judge, threaten attorney.
July 15, 2013 By Our Pakistan Correspondent - Leave a Comment
LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – A court in Pakistan on Saturday (July 13) sentenced a Christian to life in prison for alleged blasphemy in spite of the complainant retracting the accusation and admitting police pressured him into making it, his attorney said.
Attorney Javed Sahotra told Morning Star News by phone that prosecutors in the court in Toba Tek Singh District in Punjab Province produced no evidence that 29-year-old Sajjad Masih denigrated the prophet of Islam, and that Islamist mobs pressured the judge into the conviction and verdict. Masih was also ordered to pay a fine of 200,000 rupees (US$1,980).
Gojra police arrested Masih, of Pakpattan, Punjab Province, on accusations that he had sent text messages mocking Islam's prophet, Muhammad, to Muslim clerics and others in Gojra on Dec. 11, 2011. Gojra is about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Pakpattan.
Sahotra said that Masih had evaded repeated attempts to arrest him after learning of the accusations against him, but that on Dec. 28, 2011, area Christian leaders accompanied him to the Gojra City Police Station so that he could record a statement.
"The police refused to let him leave and put him behind bars," Sahotra said, adding that case No. 820/2011 was registered against Masih under Section 295-C of Pakistan's widely condemned blasphemy laws, which call for death or life imprisonment (25 years in Pakistan) of any person found guilty of blaspheming Muhammad.
Sahotra said that soon after the Christian leaders left the police station, officers took Masih out of his cell and started beating him.
"They hung Masih upside down in a room and tried to force him to 'confess' that he had indeed sent those text messages," he said. "A naked electric wire was tied around his feet, and he was threatened with electrocution if he did not do what the police wanted."
Officers did not carry out the threat but sent the battered young man to Toba Tek Singh Prison.
Some young Muslim men in Gojra had plotted against Masih to "punish him for being friends with a local Christian girl," Sahotra said. It was not clear what interest the Muslims had in Masih's love relationship with a fellow Christian, but the complainant in the case lives in her neighborhood. Prosecutors claimed that the young woman, Roma Masih, had broken off a marriage engagement with Sajjad Masih, and that in vengeance he had used a mobile phone SIM card purchased in her name to send blasphemous messages. She has since reportedly gone to the United Kingdom.
The complainant in the case, Tariq Saleem, said under cross-examination that he had not received any blasphemous text messages as he originally claimed, Sahotra said.
"The complainant backtracked from his statement during cross examination – Saleem told the court he had been forced by the police to file the case," he said.
Police officers pressured Saleem to file the case after Islamic clerics had pressured them, Sahotra said. Questioning why the clerics themselves were unwilling to file a case, he pointed out that the accused Christian does not live in Gojra and would not have known the numbers of the Muslim clerics and others there who were said to have received the supposed text messages.
Police and area Muslims have spread the story of Masih using his ex-girlfriend's SIM card to cover up their complicity in the attempt to frame him, Sahotra said.
The judge in the case, Mian Shahzad Raza, did not have the nerve to withstand pressure from Muslim groups, he said.
"The situation had grown so dangerous that Masih's trial was shifted to the jail," he said. "Even then, dozens of Islamist activists would sit outside the jail to keep up the pressure. I was also threatened many times during the trial by local lawyers and activists of religious parties to stop defending Masih."
Sahotra repeatedly informed the judge about the threats, but he did nothing, Sahotra said.
"Even I did not expect much from him or the police, because Gojra is a stronghold of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and its political wing, the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, formerly known as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan," he said.
Designated as a Sunni Muslim terrorist organization by Pakistan and the United States, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is considered Pakistan's most violent militant outfit. It is reportedly responsible for carrying out the most deadly attacks in the country's history, including an epic assault on the country's Army General Headquarters. Its cadres were also involved in the Gojra massacre of 2009, when eight Christians were burned to death by Muslim mobs over blasphemy allegations.
"No government or judicial officer will ever dare [to defy] the religious extremists – just because of them, an innocent man will rot in prison," said Sahotra, adding that higher courts usually overturn such convictions after the suspects have spent months or years behind bars.
He said he will challenge the verdict in higher courts.
"The verdict will be made available to us in a couple of days; we will have a month to file the appeal," he said. "I'm hopeful that the Lahore High Court will suspend the sentence and order Masih's release, because the case is clear. Everyone knows that trial court judges throw the ball in the higher courts because they can't handle the pressure … It's a pity though that a young man would have to suffer in jail until his appeal is taken up by a judge."
The case investigators were unavailable for comment.
Lack of Evidence
Sahotra said that prosecution claimed that blasphemous text messages were sent from a number registered in the name of Roma Masih and that the SIM was bought from Pakpattan on Dec. 11, 2011.
Sajjad Masih was in his office in Pakpattan during the time he was accused of buying the SIM on the girl's National Identity Card, Sahotra said.
"We even submitted affidavits of Masih's co-workers in court in support of our claim," he said.
Police failed to produce the SIM card and the mobile handset from which the text messages were allegedly sent. Officers failed to obtain the service provider's Call Data Records of the people supposedly involved in the texts, nor did they present the subscription form of the telephone number to prove its ownership, he said.
"It was also brought to the court's notice that two junior officials had investigated the case, whereas under Section 156 of the Criminal Procedure Code, allegations such as blasphemy must be investigated by an officer of the rank of superintendent of police," he said.
Pakistan's blasphemy laws have been used to falsely accuse other Christians. Karma Patras, a 56-year-old pastor released on bail in February after his accuser said he was mistaken in filing the complaint (see Morning Star News, Feb. 25), was exonerated last month.
Asia Noreen (also known as Asia Bibi), a Christian mother of five, has been sentenced to death after being incarcerated on false charges of blasphemy since November 2010.
Blasphemy charges against Rimsha Masih, a girl whose mental age was determined to be less than 14 years old, were dismissed on Nov. 20, 2012 after a judge ruled that they were baseless (see Morning Star News, Nov. 20, 2012). She has since been relocated to Canada.
Pakistan is nearly 96 percent Muslim, according to Operation World, and religiously charged court cases commonly involve clamoring crowds of Muslims and other pressures coming to bear on lawyers and judges. Christians make up 2.45 percent of the population.