London: On 4th July 2022, the Pakistani Session Court sentenced Christian man Ashfaq Masih to death. He was accused of committing blasphemy for saying that Jesus Christ is the only true prophet in June 2017.
Masih pleaded not guilty in court and said in a statement “I am innocent, the case against me is baseless, false and frivolous and framed against me just to destroy my business. My business was running well, and I was very happy but Muhammad Naveed who is also a motorcycle mechanic and had started a shop in front of me and was jealous because my business was doing well and had a good reputation in the area. We had already fought a few days before the incident. And he had threatened me with dire consequences.
He continued: “On the day of the incident, I had an argument with Muhammad Irfan, who was refusing to pay me after getting his bicycle repaired. When I asked Irfan to pay the bill we agreed, he responded by saying ‘I am a follower of Peer Fakhir (Sufi Muslim ascetics) and don’t ask for the bill’. I insisted for my bill and said that I don't follow anyone other than Jesus, and so wasn’t interested in the man’s religious status.
“Irfan went to Naveed’s shop and after a few minutes he came back and turned the whole matter into religious affairs and started accusing me of committing blasphemy. People started gathering around and my shop, and the owner, Muhammad Ashfaq, who had already asked me to vacate his shop, also arrived. This was an opportunity for Naveed and Ashfaq to settle the score, so they complained to the police and the police registered a first information report (FIR) under blasphemy law section 295 C which has a mandatory death penalty.”
Mehmood, Ashfaq’s older brother said that on the morning of 4th July no proceeding was taking place, but the additional session judge Khalid Wazir just announced the judgment and handed a copy of the judgement to his brother.
He said: “The sudden judgment stunned me and I didn’t know what to do. I hardly gathered myself and came out of the courtroom and started crying as it was the end of the world for me. I rushed home and informed my family. My wife and children also started crying. As the news spread my relatives started visiting to console us, but it was not easy for me as Ashfaq is my only brother and I love him very much, I can do anything for him.”
Nasir Saeed, the Director of CLAAS-UK said it is a very sad yet expected judgment.
He explained: “I don’t remember any case where the lower court decided to grant bail or freed anyone accused of the blasphemy law. The judges aware that such cases are made to punish and settle personal grudges with the opponents, especially against the Christians.
“Because of pressure from the Islamic groups, lower courts’ judges are always hesitant to free the victims but make popular decisions to save their skin and shift their burden to the high court. Ashfaq’s case was very clear - the shop owner wanted him out and Naveed was a business rival who implicated him in a false blasphemy case. He is innocent and has already spent five years in prison for a crime he never committed.”
He further said that it is the 2nd case within 30 days where a Christian has been sentenced to death. On 11 June, the High Court upheld the death penalty of two Christian brothers, Amoon and Qaiser Ayub.
Mr Saeed said: “I don’t know how the world is going to react to this news. The International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief has already started and participants all over the world are attending the conference. World leaders and international organisations have already expressed their concern over the ongoing misuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan.
“I believe the British government and other participants will take this matter seriously and express their concern to the Pakistani government.
“The vigilante killing and misuse of the blasphemy law continues to grow in Pakistan, especially against religious minorities. Several innocent people have been killed and their worship places are attacked merely on allegations of blasphemy.
“The National Assembly has passed a resolution calling for the law not to be abused in ways like this, but failed to bring any changes or legislation to stop the ongoing misuse of the blasphemy law.
“CLAAS continues to raise its concerns with the Pakistani government whenever possible, but so far our call for change has fallen on deaf ears.
“CLAAS is in touch with the family and is working with its partners to submit an appeal in the high court against the lower court’s judgment.”
Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) is an interdenominational organisation working for Christians who are being persecuted because of their faith in Pakistan. CLAAS works for religious freedom, to stop persecution of Christians in Pakistan because of blasphemy and other discriminatory laws, raise awareness, disseminate information and highlight the plight of Christians on an international level. CLAAS provides free legal aid to victims of religious intolerance in Pakistan, as well as shelter and financial support for the victims and their families.