SUPREME COURT ORDERS FULL HEARING ON BLASPHEMY CASE - Pakistani Christian Ayub Masih Granted Final Appeal.... by Barbara G. Baker.


ISTANBUL, February 13 (Compass) -- In a preliminary hearing today in Lahore, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered a full hearing at the Supreme Court level for Ayub Masih, a Christian slated to be hanged for alleged blasphemy against the Muslim prop

A two-judge bench of the Supreme Court ruled that Masih's appeal was "a fit case for further consideration" in light of apparent legal irregularities in his prosecution. Set for review before three or more Supreme Court justices, the case is expected to be heard "within the next two or three months," Masih's defense lawyer Abid Hassan Minto told Compass.

It will be the final judicial appeal for Masih, jailed since October 1996 and kept in solitary confinement on death row for nearly four years in Multan's New Central Jail.

Now 34, Masih was convicted on the verbal testimony of one Muslim complainant, who claimed that during a private conversation his Christian neighbor had slandered Mohammed by praising Salman Rushdie's book, "The Satanic Verses." More than three years after Masih's initial conviction by a Sahiwal sessions court, the Multan High Court finally rejected his appeal last July. The surprise ruling rubber-stamped the lower court verdict, throwing the high-profile case before the Supreme Court for a final decision. In accordance with the "Criminal Petition Leave to Appeal" he filed last August, Minto argued before the Supreme Court today that Ayub Masih's case was exceptional. In particular, he raised the issue that the required "inherent" provisions of Quranic law had not been observed in his client's prosecution.

"This became what we call a 'hadd' case," Minto said, "because the legal punishment, the death sentence, is based on a Quranic injunction." Accordingly, he explained, Islamic law requires a pre-trial examination of the evidence and prosecutorial witnesses to determine if there is justification to proceed with the case.

This legal safeguard was never included in the Hudood Ordinances introduced into Pakistani law in 1980 under the regime of Zia ul-Haq. But Minto argued before the Supreme Court today that Islamic law "inherently" requires such a provision. In April 2000, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf had announced procedural changes to restrict "misuse" of the blasphemy law, including a magistrate's review of the evidence before a case was registered. But after two weeks of heavy protests launched by Islamist leaders, the government was forced to back down, and the statutes were never changed. Minto said he did not believe his client's case would be remanded to a lower court for re-trial. "The Supreme Court will say that it's been once tried on a wrong assumption, but then they will acquit him," Minto said from Lahore. "I have very great hope in this."

Minto, a prominent Muslim human rights lawyer, had successfully represented Christian Gul Masih, acquitted in 1994 before the Lahore High Court on what the judges termed "concocted" blasphemy charges. However, Ayub Masih's alleged blasphemy conviction is the first such case to reach the Supreme Court level.

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