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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