Advocates Pray for Christian's Release after Seven-Year Imprisonment
By Aidan Clay, Regional Manager for the Middle East
3/8/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) - The High Court in Lahore, Pakistan is scheduled to announce whether it will uphold the death sentence of a Pakistani Christian condemned for blasphemy in the coming weeks. After more than seven years behind bars, advocates are hopeful that the Christian will soon be released, but they fear that outside pressure by extremists may alter the court's decision.
On September 10, 2005, Younis Masih was arrested for making derogatory remarks about the Muslim prophet Muhammad in the Chunngi Amar Sadu area of Lahore. Masih denied the allegations, claiming he did nothing more than ask a group of Muslims who were holding a religious service in a nearby house to turn their music down late one evening. The next day, the Muslim cleric leading the service accused Masih of blaspheming Islam. After more than a year behind bars, Masih was sentenced to death by the Sessions Court in Lahore on May 30, 2007 under Section 295-C of Pakistan's Penal Code, which states, "Whoever... defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life."
Masih's appeal is now under review in the High Court in Lahore. On February 27, the final day of his hearing, a group of Muslims, known as Anjuman Tahaffuz Khatme Nabuwat (the Association for the Protection of the Prophethood), gathered outside the courthouse demanding that the blasphemy law be upheld and that Masih be executed. It was not the first time the group had tried to influence the court's decision. Masih's hearing had been adjourned on several occasions in the past because the association and other extremists had caused disorder in the courtroom.
"When the case was called for hearing, there were about 20 Muslim clerics inside the court and many more were standing outside the courtroom," Joseph Francis, Director of the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance, and Settlement (CLAAS), told ICC after Masih's January 17 hearing. "It was just to put pressure on the judges because today the lawyers were going to give the final arguments. But due to the mullahs' pressure, the case was adjourned without hearing."
According to Naeem Shakir, Masih's attorney, the association uses intimidation tactics to persuade the court to reach a verdict based on religious, rather than legal, grounds. "The Association for the Protection of the Prophethoodtries to influence the court by arousing religious emotions and embarrassing the judge," he told ICC."They appointed a team of lawyers to represent them in blasphemy cases. I am well experienced in this kind of tactic."
After the evidence was presented on Feb. 27, sitting Justices Khawja Imtiaz Ahmed and Ali Baqar Najfi announced that a decision would be reached in the coming weeks. Masih's advocates believe the extremists were responsible for the delayed verdict. "It seems the judges of the High Court were pressured," said Francis. "Though they know that [Masih] is innocent, they have no courage to announce him innocent and drop the charges of blasphemy against him."
There is still hope, however, that Masih will be acquitted. According to Shakir, the prosecution had failed "miserably" to support their allegations of blasphemy. Moreover, evidence had been misrepresented in the courtroom, resulting in a "serious miscarriage of justice." Shakir also argues that the death sentence, which was handed down by the Sessions Court in 2007, reflected the "religious zeal of the presiding officer," not the rule of law. Masih had reportedly addressed the court, saying, "As a Christian, I would not dare insult Muhammad because my beliefs permit me from doing so." The judge mockingly responded, "If you have so much respect for the Prophet, why have you not embraced Islam?"
The question remains whether the High Court in Lahore will rule justly or bow to the pressure of extremists by keeping Masih behind bars, or worse, setting a date for his execution. Even if released, however, Masih's acquittal would be a far cry from justice. Having languished in Pakistani prisons for more than seven years, Masih has also been attacked at least twice by fellow inmates, Amnesty International reported in 2007. On January 8, Masih nearly died from a severe heart attack and was rushed to a hospital for treatment. Moreover, Masih's wife, Ameena, and four children have lived in impoverished conditions throughout his imprisonment and Masih has yet to meet his seven-year-old son, who Ameena was pregnant with during his arrest.
"I pray that Masih is graciously acquitted and released from jail and set free," Shakir told ICC. "The allegation of blasphemy [against him] was made for religious persecution, nothing more. After seven years in prison and immense suffering for him and his family, we hope the truth is finally established."