Pakistan Acquits Illiterate Christian of Blasphemy
Aslam Masih's Conviction Overturned by Lahore High Court

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, June 4 (Compass) -- After four and one-half years in prison for
alleged blasphemy against Islam, Pakistani Christian Aslam Masih was acquitted
today in a 15-minute appeals hearing before the Lahore High Court.

In his mid 50s and illiterate, Masih was arrested in November 1998 on charges
that he had desecrated the Quran by hanging verses from the Muslim holy book in
a charm around a dog's neck. He has been jailed without bail ever since.

Although the prosecution only produced hearsay evidence against Masih, he was
found guilty on May 7, 2002. The Faisalabad Additional Sessions Court sentenced
him to serve double life-sentences in prison and pay a fine of 100,000 rupees
(then $1,660).

In overturning Masih's lower court conviction today, Justice Najam ur-Zaman
reportedly took what one observer called "a very aggressive attitude against
the prosecution."

During the trial proceedings, the judge noted, the prosecution's star witness
had actually retracted the statement attributed to him by the police, accusing
them of concocting it. The court minutes record that the witness denied even
being present during the alleged incident or filing any complaint against
Masih, which forced the prosecution to declare him a hostile witness.

All the other witnesses brought against Masih were second or third hand,
relegating the basis of any judgment to hearsay evidence. Although such
evidence is legally inadmissible for conviction, the Faisalabad judge found
Masih guilty.

"Due to the pressures of the fanatics, the trial court judges do not take the
risk of acquitting the accused," one of Masih's defense lawyers told Compass
today. The jailed Christian has been represented by a team of lawyers from the
Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) in Lahore.

Justice ur-Zaman also scolded the prosecution today for their accusations
against Masih for having some copies of Quranic verses in his pocket at the
time of his arrest. "It's not an offense for Christians or anyone else to have
verses from the Quran in their pocket," he declared. "How can you convict a
person for that?"

In accordance with appellate court practice, Masih was not present in the court
when his acquittal was announced. But his lawyers who visited him in the
Faisalabad Central Jail last week said their client appeared "very weak" and
was suffering from ongoing back pain. Although badly beaten at the time of his
arrest, Masih was never given proper medical treatment for his injuries.

"We gave him money for medicine, and for admittance to the hospital, to be
properly looked after," one of his lawyers said. Masih, who is unmarried, had
been living with his brother's family at the time of his arrest.

Security arrangements are now in process for Masih's release from prison within
the next few days, CLAAS Coordinator Joseph Francis said today. Once the high
court verdict has been delivered to the lower court, the latter will order the
jail superintendent to release the defendant.

"There are a lot of threats when such a person gets acquitted and then
released," one of the lawyers pointed out. Most go into strict hiding until
they can be safely sent out of the country for asylum, out of the reach of
extremist Muslims vowing to kill them despite their judicial acquittal.

Seven other Christians remain jailed in Pakistan on drawn-out charges of
blasphemy under the country's notorious "black laws," under which members of
the Ahmadi sect and other religious minorities continue to be targeted.

Appeals are pending on the death sentence against Ashiq "Kingri" Masih in
Faisalabad, as well as lifetime prison sentences against Ranjha Masih in
Faisalabad and Amjad Masih and Asif Masih in Jhang. The trials of three other
Christians arrested in 2001 are still being heard before the lower courts:
Pervaiz Masih of Sialkot, Anwar Kenneth of Lahore and Shahbaz Masih of
Faisalabad.


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