On March 27, additional session judge Chaudhry Ghulam Murtaza sentenced Sawan Masih to death and fined him Rs.200,000 Pak rupees in the same prison courtroom he has been confined in since March last year.
He was found guilty of insulting the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) under blasphemy law 295-C.
Although judges have the option to give either life imprisonment or a death sentence to someone charged under the blasphemy law, the death sentence is the most popular and expected punishment in such cases.
According to my colleagues, when the judge announced his verdict, Sawan was clam and peaceful and courageously accepted the decision. It is being said that the judge was swayed by his religious feelings and made this decision under pressure, shifting responsibility to the high court – something which is normal in these cases.
However, this means that Sawan will languish in prison for many years to come. I am sure the government is aware of the security issues, which is why this case was heard in the prison.
I have copy of the FIR (first information police report) and copy of the judgment in front of me, the case is such a weak and it was also registered with inordinate delay, raising several questions.
Similarly I have read the judgment and find it biased, but I am stuck on two lines on the second page which are written in Urdu while the whole judgment is in English.
These two lines are what Sawan is alleged to have said and caused havoc. Three thousand people attacked and torch the whole Christian colony last March. Those lines are that: “My Jesus Christ is true, He will come, He is the son of God (Allah), Muslims’ prophet --------------- (I won’t repeat it) and my Jesus Christ is true, He will save me. Even the Urdu spelling of Jesus is wrong, which can offend any Christian and if the law allows it, a case can be registered against the judge for the misspelling under the same law he announced the death sentence to Sawan.
I hope you remember a few years back in September 2011 a teenage Christian school girl, Faryal was accused of blasphemy for misspelling. By misplacing a dot by mistake, she put her own and her family’s lives in danger. Here there is one whole extra word and we are talking about a judge - educated and well versed with the Pakistani laws. Unfortunately, present blasphemy laws only care about and protect Islam, and not other religions.
Sawan denies the charges against him. Instead he says the allegations were made up against him by those who wanted to grab their land, making them the actual blasphemers. I have no reason not to believe him, as being a Pakistani myself I am aware of such cases and also there are several cases on record where in fact the complainant committed blasphemy himself to implicate his opponent, in order to take revenge or settle a personal score.
I am sure we still remember the well known case of Rimsha Masih and how she was incriminated. Later it was discovered that the local Imam Jadoon Chishti had burnt Quranic pages just to plant evidence against her, in order to force Christian families out of the colony. He was charged and has recently been released.
Whether it is the attack on the Shanti Nagar, Gojra or Sangla Hill, there is no concrete evidence available as to whether any of the accused actually committed blasphemy. It has never been proven that any Christian has ever committed blasphemy, and those were involved in these attacks and killing innocent Christians have never been questioned.
Let me mention here another incident. In 2005 in Sangla hill three churches and a Christian library were torched, while a graveyard, Christians’ houses and sister’s convent was attacked and if I am not forgetting, a few sisters were even insulted and assaulted after the false accusation against Yousaf Masih for burning the Quran Mahal (Quran Palace, where Quran’s holy pages collected form rubbish used to be kept). Yousaf Masih was charged under the blasphemy law, but later Mohammed Saleem, the complainant admitted that because he had lost money to Yousaf in gambling, he burnt the Quran Mahal to implicate Yousaf.
After his admittance Yousaf was acquitted but Saleem, who had actually committed blasphemy, was never charged for burning the Quran Mahal or even questioned. That was a time when the government and Ulemas had to think about at least stopping its misuse, but nothing happened. Such inaction from the police and government is considered a silent approval and encourages and promotes hatred and religious intolerance against non-Muslims.
The recent protest in the assembly by the opposition against Sawan’s death sentence is encouraging. It may be the opposition’s political tactics, but they are criticising it and demanding an end of its misuse against the minorities, which is a good sign and it seems that the ice has begun to melt. This is the same parliament where few years back Sherry Rehman was harassed and threatened for talking over the same issue and earlier in 2007 when minority member, MR. M P Bhandara sought permission to move a bill for the amendment in the blasphemy law, the MMA, ruling party, MLQ and the opposition unanimously protested. The then Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sher Afgan Niazi was too critical of the bill and said the move would only hurt the feelings of Muslims and asked the speaker not to put such bills on the agenda of the house.
How we can forget the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer and minority minster, Shahbaz Bhatti. But hopes have risen that their sacrifices and the blood they have shed will not be wasted. The realisation that the blasphemy laws are being misused against minorities and protests, are just the beginning.
The world has raised its concerns over the continuous misuse of blasphemy law against Christians and other minorities on several occasions, but the government of Pakistan under the cover of religious excuses gets away with doing nothing.
But how long can this continue for? W e should face this truth courageously and resolve it carefully and wisely. It is our problem, it is a matter of our people’s lives, it is a matter of our reputation so we have to deal with it, and the sooner the better.
Just because the Pakistani government is not taking the matter seriously, it does not mean that no one else cares. On March 18 the EU discussed religious freedom in Pakistan, earlier this month USCIRF (US commission on International religious Freedom) issued their policy brief on blasphemy laws victimization and they said that the laws are incompatible with the human rights.
The UN special rapporteur has expressed its concern, British Prime Minister David Cameron and several other British MPs and Members of the House of Lords have expressed their concern over the misuse of blasphemy law in Pakistan.
With the issue being recognised internationally, why can’t the Pakistani government take this matter seriously, or is it waiting for more bloodshed or for minorities leave Pakistan as thousands of Hindus and Christians are already migrating to different countries.
It is time to deal with this long standing issue because the sooner something is done, the better.