Pakistan Christian Sentenced to
Life in Prison
Faisalabad Court Finds Ranjha Masih Guilty of Blasphemy
by Barbara G. Baker ISTANBUL, April 28 (Compass) -- A Pakistani Christian in his 50's has been sentenced to life in prison for committing blasphemy, allegedly by damaging a Muslim signboard during a bishop's funeral procession five years ago. An estimated 100 onlookers jammed the Faisalabad Additional District and Sessions Court on April 26 to hear the lower court verdict against Ranjha Masih, read out by Judge Mohammed Shahid Rafique. "He just announced the judgment against Ranjha in two short sentences and then abruptly he went away," Masih's defense lawyer Khalil Tahir told Compass today. As of this morning, Judge Rafique still had not signed the verdict, Tahir said. "I don't know why, but he is receiving threats." Although the final defense arguments for Masih had been completed before the court in the last week of March, Judge Rafique had postponed the verdict several times. When the judgment was finally announced two days ago, the courtroom was reportedly filled with local Muslim activists and journalists. Contrary to a Dawn newspaper report that "a large number of Christian leaders" also came to the court to hear the verdict, Tahir said he was the only Christian present when the judgment was announced. "No one else came there, no priest, no one," he said. Masih's life-prison sentence was accompanied by a fine of 50,000 rupees ($830). According to reports published in yesterday's Daily Times and Dawn newspapers, the plaintiff who opened the blasphemy case against Masih was Mohammed Jahanzeb, son of former Faisalabad mayor Malik Mohammed Ashraf. "Jahanzeb had alleged that Christian youths pelted stones on Koranic verses written on a signboard at a Railway Road pawn shop, and also committed blasphemy," the Dawn report said. The prosecution accused Masih of participating in a "violent Christian procession" and smashing a neon sign bearing the Muslim statement of faith on May 8, 1998, during funeral processions for Bishop John Joseph. Then Catholic bishop of Faisalabad, Bishop John committed suicide in front of the Faisalabad courthouse in a dramatic protest against the victimization of Christians under Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws. According to Tahir, Masih conducted himself "very boldly" at his trial, declaring confidently to the court, "I am innocent. I never did that." Masih was tried under Section 295-C of the blasphemy law, which carries a mandatory death sentence for anyone convicted. Inexplicably, Judge Rafique instead handed down a life-sentence verdict to Masih. Tahir said he would file his client's appeal before the Lahore High Court as soon as he can obtain a certified copy of the lower court judgment, which the judge has yet to sign. The appeal process could be expected to take another 18 months, he admitted, saying he would try to "move the case" more rapidly. Now 55, Masih has been jailed without bail since his arrest nearly five years ago. "We have been keeping regular contact with Ranjha, to keep up his spirits," Catholic Bishop Joseph Coutts confirmed today from Faisalabad, where Masih is incarcerated in the Faisalabad Central Jail. A simple bus hawker by occupation, Masih was a long-time personal friend of Bishop John. He and his wife, Rashidaan Bibi, have five sons, one daughter and several grandchildren. In addition to Ranjha Masih, seven other Christians are currently jailed on blasphemy charges in Pakistan: Ashiq "Kingri" Masih, age 26, on death row in Faisalabad; Aslam Masih, 71, appealing double life-sentences in Faisalabad; Amjad and Asif Masih, 30 and 29 respectively, appealing 25-year sentences in Jhang; Pervaiz Masih, 35, on trial in Daska; Anwar Kenneth, on death row in Lahore; and Shahbaz Masih, 25, on trial in Faisalabad. Three Pakistani Christians have been acquitted of false blasphemy charges in the past year, but all served long years in prison before their release. Ayub Masih spent nearly six years in jail, four of them on death row, before the Supreme Court overturned his conviction last August. Two brothers, Saleem and Rasheed Masih, were imprisoned nearly four years until the Lahore High Court announced their acquittal and release in March.
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