Christian Sentenced to Death for ‘Blasphemy’ Acquitted

False charge sent him to prison for nearly 10 years.

Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan. (Romero Maia, Creative Commons)

Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan. (Romero Maia, Creative Commons)

LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – A Christian in Pakistan incarcerated for nearly 10 years on a false blasphemy conviction was released from prison on Nov. 13 after a high court acquitted him, but quietly to avoid Islamist outrage, his attorney said.

The life prison sentence of Sajjad Masih Gill, 37, had been converted to the death penalty on March 10 under Islamist pressure. His attorney, Javed Sahotra, said that a two-judge division bench of the Lahore High Court on Oct. 26 acquitted Gill on grounds of insufficient evidence and ordered his release.

“My client is facing serious security risks,” Sahotra told Morning Star News. “We intentionally kept the news secret to avoid putting his and our lives at risk. Gill is very happy after being released from prison on Nov. 13, but he cannot return to his normal life.”

Gill, member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Pakpattan, spent nine years, 10 months and 15 days in prison on the false charge, Sahotra said.

“The hearing of his appeal was adjourned over a hundred times by the Lahore High Court because the judges weren’t ready to hear the case,” he said. “Such is the fear that surrounds blasphemy cases that when our appeal was fixed before a female judge, she outright refused to hear it. When I told her that the case had been pending in her court for the last several hearings, she said she had not read the case file, otherwise she would have immediately requested the chief justice to fix it before another judge.”

Sahotra said he appreciated the high court judges for administering justice, albeit after a prolonged delay.

“Though the court’s verdict is laudable, it’s high time the superior judiciary and the government realize the suffering of all those accused of blasphemy, especially those who have been framed in fake cases,” Sahotra told Morning Star News. “Gill was 27 years old when he was arrested, and he spent almost 10 years of his youth incarcerated on a false charge. Who will compensate for the immense loss that he has suffered during this time?”

He added that all people accused of blasphemy should be granted the right to bail to prevent such a grave human rights violation.

Gill’s mother was widowed 32 years ago, Sahotra said.

“His elderly mother has been living on the edge all these years fearing for her son’s fate, but she did not lose hope,” he said. “Her pain and anguish cannot be explained in words, and I think the news of Gill’s acquittal was nothing short of a miracle for her and the entire family.”

A trial court sentenced Gill to life in prison in 2011 under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy statutes against defiling Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. A Muslim had accused Gill of sending a blasphemous message.

A Federal Shariat Court ruling in 1991, however, had removed life imprisonment from Section 295-C, leaving mandatory death and a fine as the only punishment. On March 10, Lahore High Court Justice Malik Shahzad Ahmad Khan granted an appeal by the Islamist Khatam-e-Nabuwwat Forum (KNF, or Movement for the Finality of Prophethood) to revise the sentence to death.

In last month’s verdict overturning the conviction, Lahore High Court Justice Malik Shahzad Ahmad Khan and Justice Muhammad Tariq Nadeem said police had failed to recover from Gill any mobile phone and SIM card allegedly used in the offense, Sahotra said.

“There were no witnesses of the alleged incident who could implicate Gill as the writer and sender of that alleged text message,” he said. “The judges also accepted our argument that the FIR [First Information Report] against the accused was registered after a delay of 24 hours, raising doubts over the intention of the complainant.”

Islamist Pressure

Since the KNF was founded 20 years ago, it has advocated for the death penalty for Christians and other minorities in Punjab Province convicted of blasphemy.

Attorney Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, head of KNF, said the group represents almost every complainant in blasphemy cases in Punjab Province.

“Hundreds of Khatam-e-Nabuwwat lawyers are using their expertise and influence across Punjab voluntarily to ensure that anyone insulting Islam or the prophet Muhammad is charged, tried and executed,” he told Morning Star News earlier this year.

Supreme Court Advocate Saif Ul Malook, a Muslim attorney who won freedom for Pakistan’s most high-profile blasphemy convict, Aasiya Noreen (better known as Asia Bibi), represents other Christians on death row. He said that Chaudhry and his group of lawyers were behind an increase in blasphemy cases, especially in Punjab.

Few Muslim lawyers are willing to put their life at risk by defending a person accused of blasphemy, particularly if they belong to a minority community, Malook said.

The KNF has instilled fear in lower and higher courts with such pressure tactics, he said.

No Deterrence

No one in Pakistan has been executed for blasphemy so far, though death sentences are increasing.

False accusations of blasphemy are common and often motivated by personal vendettas or religious hatred. The highly inflammatory accusations have the potential to spark mob lynchings, vigilante murders and mass protests.

Church leaders and human rights defenders say the government’s failure to curb the misuse of the blasphemy laws was emboldening false accusers and groups such as the KNF.

A Senate Special Committee on Human Rights and the Islamabad High Court in 2018 recommended that those making false blasphemy accusations be given the same punishments as those for blasphemy convictions, but the government dismissed the recommendation. The recommendation also stated that anyone registering a blasphemy case at a police station must bring two witnesses.

While punishment for blasphemy ranges from several years in prison to death in Pakistan, a person making a false accusation faces potential punishment of only six months in prison or a fine of 1,000 rupees (US$5.71). Successive governments have acknowledged that the blasphemy laws are blatantly misused, but little effort has been made to stop the abuses.

Rights activists say it’s unlikely that any government will move to repeal or amend the blasphemy laws due to fierce Islamist sentiments in the Muslim-majority country. They say Pakistani authorities must be urged to immediately implement effective procedural and institutional safeguards at the investigative, prosecutorial and judicial levels to prevent abuse of these laws.

The U.S. State Department on Dec. 7 re-designated Pakistan among nine other “Countries of Particular Concern” for severe violations of religious freedom. Previously Pakistan had been added to the list on Nov. 28, 2018.

Pakistan ranked fifth on Christian support organization Open Doors 2021 World Watch list of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

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