e-mail us
Pakistan upholds death sentence for blasphemy

By NCR Staff

A Pakistani appeals court last month confirmed the death sentence of a Christian charged with having made derogatory remarks against the Muhammad.

The case of Ayub Masih received international attention when Pakistani Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad committed suicide in May 1998 to protest the verdict. The bishop shot himself in front of the court building after the verdict was handed down.

Ayub was arrested in October 1996 and sentenced to death in April 1998. He was charged with blasphemy under a section of the Pakistani penal code. Blasphemy, in the Pakistani definition, includes speaking or writing against the prophet Mohammed or Islam. It carries a mandatory penalty of death.

At the time of his arrest, tensions were mounting between the landless Christian peasants and the land-owning Muslims in the southern Punjab. Ayub was accused at the time of blasphemy during a dispute with a Muslim villager. Human rights activists claim that the accusation was a tactic used by Muslim groups to assure that Christians would not be able to reclaim land they held before being expelled from the area.

Human rights groups in Asia are protesting the latest ruling and calling for international support in their appeal to have it reviewed. Lawyers in Pakistan said it was a response to pressure from Islamic extremists. Samuel Xavier, a high court lawyer, said the court had been filled with extremists threatening violence if the death sentence was not upheld.

“The charges of blasphemy always appear to be arbitrarily brought or founded on malicious accusations against individuals,” the Hong Kong-based Asian Center for the Progress of Peoples said in a statement. The center said the definition of bias under the code is vague.

According to Pakistani sources, the case against Ayub relied only on verbal testimony of the complainants. No other evidence was submitted. There was no investigation of the alleged incident.

A local newspaper in Pakistan reported that the appeals court ruling last month followed a hearing during which Muslim extremists threatened the court and Ayub’s attorneys.

An appeal of the verdict to the Pakistan Supreme Court must be made within 30 days.

The blasphemy law in Pakistan has existed for more than a century, but was modified in 1986 and 1991. The law makes no stipulation about the intention of blasphemous acts, nor does it define the crime it is meant to punish. Critics, who have called for the repeal of the law, say it is used arbitrarily and often without foundation. Ayub was charged with blasphemy under a section of the Pakistani penal code.

National Catholic Reporter, August 10, 2001