Pakistan: Christian man one among many facing execution under blasphemy laws

Accused’s lawyer has survived an attempt on his life; family forced to flee

Younis Masih, a Pakistani Christian, has been sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan. His family have been threatened and forced to flee their home, and are now living in hiding.

Mr Masih has been attacked in prison by other inmates, while his lawyer, Parvez Aslam Choudhry, has survived an apparent attempt on his life and is being harassed because of his involvement in the case.

Amnesty International believes Younis Masih has been prosecuted because he is a member of a minority faith, and is calling for him to be released immediately and for the abolition of all laws which violate the rights to freedom of opinion and expression.

Younis Masih is alleged to have made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed at a religious service held at a house near his own on 9 September 2005, in the Chunngi Amar Sadu area of Lahore. He denies this, and a local newspaper quoted his wife as saying that he was attacked after he went to the house at around midnight and asked the people inside not to sing so loudly, as he was in mourning for his nephew, who had recently died. The Muslim cleric who had led the service filed a complaint against Younis Masih, accusing him of blasphemy.

Younis Masih’s trial was reportedly unfair, as it is claimed that the prosecution case was based on hearsay, and not direct evidence, and that changes had been made to the original prosecution witness statements. During the trial Younis Masih gave evidence via a video link due to concerns for his safety, making it the first blasphemy case to use video technology. He is appealing against his sentence.

Younis Masih’s lawyer, Parvez Aslam Choudhry, has received threats, including death threats, during and since the trial. In May 2006, unknown assailants deliberately rammed their car into Parvez Aslam Choudhry’s car, which then was pushed off the road and fell forty feet, killing one passenger, lawyer Rana Javed Rafiq. The judge in the case ordered the Punjab police to provide Mr Choudhry with protection, but he has stated that this order has not been implemented.

Amnesty International UK Campaigns Director Tim Hancock said:

“It is clear that Younis Masih has been targeted because of his faith, and now faces execution because the law in Pakistan permits the persecution of religious minorities.

“President Musharraf must put an immediate halt to this execution, and ensure that the blasphemy laws in Pakistan are re-examined so that they cannot be used to persecute those who are different from the majority.”

The blasphemy laws of Pakistan, while purporting to protect Islam and the religious sensitivities of the Muslim majority, are vaguely formulated and arbitrarily enforced by the police and judiciary in a way which amounts to harassment and persecution of religious minorities. Many of those accused or suspected of blasphemy have been assaulted or tortured. They include members of minortity Muslim denominations, Hindus and Christians.

People detained on blasphemy charges in prisons including Kot Lakhpat, where Younis Masih is held, have been killed by fellow detainees or prison wardens. Others suspected of blasphemy, but not under arrest, have been unlawfully killed without police taking any action to protect them.

"Defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed" is a capital offence under Section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which states, "Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, and shall also be liable to a fine"..

International human rights law guarantees the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, opinion and expression. Amnesty International considers people imprisoned under blasphemy laws for exercising their right to freedom of opinion and expression to be prisoners of conscience. The organisation is urging the government of Pakistan to abolish laws, including blasphemy laws, which violate these rights.

Amnesty International members are writing to the President of Pakistan asking him to commute Younis Masih’s death sentence, to release him, and to ensure that he and his lawyer and their families are protected.

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