November 28. (Compass Direct News) â€“ In a case that has drawn crowds of religious fanatics, a Pakistani court sentenced two Christian men to 10 years in prison on Saturday (November 25) for committing "blasphemy" against the Quran.
After postponing the verdict for four consecutive days, Judge Muhammad Islam of Faisalabad's Anti-Terrorism Court delivered the prison sentence and a 25,000 rupee (US$414) fine in a closed hearing.
The high profile case had aroused controversy in Faisalabad when it was rumored that James Masih, 65, and his neighbor, Buta Masih, 70, had burned pages of the Quran on October 8 in the street near their homes in Faisalabad's Munir Park district.
Defense lawyer Khalil Tahir Sindhu told Compass that scores of Muslim fanatics had gathered outside the courthouse during each hearing, prompting Judge Islam to stall the verdict.
Stressing that his clients were innocent, Sindhu said that in any event the 10-year sentence was an "illegal" punishment for blasphemy against the Quran.
Desecration of Islam's holy book warrants life imprisonment, according to article 295 B of the Pakistan Penal Code under which the elderly men were tried.
"This conviction was not based on law," Sindhu commented. "There are only two options: 25 years [life imprisonment] or acquittal. Actually [the judge] wanted to release them, but he was really under pressure."
Sindhu said he would file an appeal in Lahore's regional high court within three days. He told Compass that, based on his cross-examination of the witnesses, he believed his clients would soon win their appeal.
"All the witnesses already had enmity with [James and Buta Masih] over a small piece of land," Sindhu commented. "And they were all friends of the complainant, Ashraf Mubarak."
None of James and Buta Masih's Muslim neighbors testified that they had seen the alleged Quran burning.
Sindhu had argued that emotional anguish caused by rumors of the Quran desecration had clouded the witnesses' judgment. Muhammad Ashraf, the investigation officer in the case, told the court that he had been enraged when he heard that the suspects had burned a Quran.
"If one party is already in emotional agony, it means that he is not impartial," Sindhu commented.
Immediately following last week's verdict, James and Buta Masih were transferred to Faisalabad's Central Jail, where they are being held in isolation.
In the wake of the October 8 rumors that James and Buta had burned pages of the Quran, a mob of 500 Muslims attempted to kill the Christians.
Christian families from the area fled after police arrested the two men and held off a crowd of Muslims who stayed outside the police station through the night.
Faisalabad Catholic Bishop Joseph Coutts and lawyer Sindhu quickly worked to defuse the blasphemy rumors, calling a press conference and meeting with local Muslim clerics. Though their efforts helped prevent wide-scale violence from erupting against Faisalabad's Christian community, they were unable to secure the elderly Christians' release from prison.
"No Christian has yet been acquitted from a lower court," Sindhu said, referring specifically to blasphemy cases in Faisalabad, Pakistan's third largest city. "But many Muslims have been [acquitted]."
Lower courts have often ruled Pakistani Christians guilty of "blasphemy," only to have their decision overturned during appeal.
Ranjha Masih, another Christian "blasphemy" prisoner accused of insulting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was released from Faisalabad Central Jail on November 15 after his life sentence was overturned by the Lahore High Court. Imprisoned since 1998, he had waited three years for his appeal to be heard.