Pakistani Woman Appeals Death Sentence for ‘Blasphemy’

District judge bows to pressure of local Muslims, handing down stunning sentence to Christian.

LAHORE, Pakistan, November 13 (CDN) — Attorneys for a Christian mother of five sentenced to death by hanging for allegedly speaking ill of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, have filed an appeal of the verdict, they said.

Bowing to pressure from Muslim extremists in Pakistan, according to the Christian woman’s husband and rights groups, a district court judge handed down the stunning sentence to Asia Noreen on Monday (Nov. 8). Additional District and Sessions Judge Naveed Ahmed Chaudhary of Nankana Sahib district delivered the verdict under Pakistan’s controversial “blasphemy” statute, the kind of law that a resolution before the United Nations condemning “defamation of religions” would make legitimate internationally.

Noreen is the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s widely condemned law against defaming Islam.

Noreen’s lawyer, Chaudhry Tahir Shahzad, said that among other allegations, she was accused of denying that Muhammad was a prophet.

“How can we expect a Christian to affirm a Muslim belief?” Shahzad said. He added that he and lawyer Manzoor Qadir had filed an appeal against the district sessions court’s verdict in the Lahore High Court.

Asia (alternately spelled Aasya) Noreen has been languishing in isolation in jail since June of last year after she argued with fellow field workers in Ittanwali village who were trying to pressure her into renouncing Christianity. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, told Compass that the argument began after the wife of an Ittanwali elder sent her to fetch water in Nankana Sahib district, about 75 kilometers (47 miles) from Lahore in Punjab Province.

The Muslim women told Noreen that it was sacrilegious to drink water collected by a non-Muslim, he said.

“My wife only said, ‘Are we not all humans?’ when the Muslim women rebuked her for her faith,” Masih, a field laborer, told Compass by telephone. “This led to an altercation.”

Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) General Secretary Katherine Sapna told Compass that the women told Muslim cleric Muhammad Salim about the incident, and he filed a case with police on the same day, June 14, 2009.

On June 19, 2009, Masih said, the Muslim women suddenly raised a commotion, accusing Noreen of defaming Muhammad.

“Several Muslim men working in the nearby fields reached the spot and forced their way into our house, where they tortured Asia and the children,” said Masih, who confirmed that his wife is 45 years old and that they have five children – four girls and a boy, the oldest daughter 20.

Police arrived and took his wife into custody, presumably for her own protection, he said.

“They saved Asia’s life, but then later a case was registered against her under Sections 295-B and C [blaspheming the Quran and Muhammad, respectively] at the Nankana police station on the complaint of Muhammad Salim, the local imam [prayer leader] of the village,” he said. “Asia has been convicted on false charges. We have never, ever insulted the prophet Muhammad or the Quran.”

Salim reportedly claimed that Noreen confessed to speaking derogatorily of Islam’s prophet and apologized. Under immense pressure from local Muslims, according to Masih, CLAAS and Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministry, local judge Chaudhary ruled out the possibility that Noreen was falsely accused. In spite of repeated efforts by the Muslim women to pressure her into renouncing her faith, the judge also reportedly ruled “there were no mitigating circumstances.”

Chaudhary also fined her 100,000 rupees (US$1,150), according to CLAAS.

Ataul Saman of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) said that lower court verdicts in blasphemy cases are usually overturned by higher courts. He said lower court proceedings take place under intense pressure, with local Muslims gathering outside and chanting slogans to pressure judges. Saman added that NCJP research showed that up to 80 percent of blasphemy charges are filed against people to settle personal scores.

Rights groups have long criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy laws as too easily used to settle grudges or oppress religious minorities, such as the more than 4 million Christians that Operation World estimates out of Pakistan’s total population of 184.7 million. To date no one has been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, as most are freed on appeal after suffering for years under appalling prison conditions. Vigilantes have killed at least 10 people accused of blasphemy, rights groups estimate.

Noreen was convicted under Section 295-C of the defamation statutes for alleged derogatory comments about Muhammad, which is punishable by death, though life imprisonment is also possible. Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment. Section 295-A of the defamation law prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” It is punishable by life imprisonment, which in Pakistan is 25 years.

Between 1986 and August 2009, at least 974 people have been charged with defiling the Quran or insulting Muhammad, according to the NCJP. Those charged included 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 from other religions.

Johnson of Sharing Life Ministry, which is active in prisons and has been following Noreen’s case from the onset, said he was impressed by her continued faith.

“A week before the verdict, I went to visit Asia in jail,” he said. “I asked her what she was expecting. She told me that Jesus would rescue her from this fake case.”

The verdict was shocking in that no one was expecting a death sentence for a woman, he said. Masih agreed.

“Asia was hoping that the judge would free her and she would come home to be with us, but this conviction has dashed our hopes for now,” Masih said.

He said that since the sentencing, authorities have not allowed him or other members of their family to visit his wife.

“We don’t know yet how she is, but we trust the Lord,” he said. “Asia is suffering for Jesus, and He will not forsake her.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Bail denied to Christian activist for his own safety; judge also under fire.

ISTANBUL, May 6 (Compass Direct News) – A Pakistani Christian charged with abetting blasphemy against Islam was denied bail for his own safety last week after an Islamist lawyer allegedly threatened his life in a court hearing.

Hector Aleem, 51, remains in Adiyala Jail in Rawalpindi, near Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad. Judge Mustafa Tanveer dismissed his bail application at a court session on Thursday (April 30).

“If the judge does not punish Aleem according to the law, then [we] will kill him ourselves,” said Tariq Dhamal, an attorney for the unnamed complainant, according to a report by the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).

Police arrested Aleem last November when a Muslim scholar received a text message insulting the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Authorities charged Aleem with blasphemy and abetting blasphemy, sections 295(c) and 109(bb) respectively of the Pakistani criminal code.

Court evidence shows the text message came from an unlisted phone number, not Aleem’s. At an April 25 hearing, Investigating Officer Zafer Ikbal said he had concluded that evidence proved Aleem’s innocence. Ikbal’s investigation, along with a February judicial decision, resulted in charges of blaspheming Islam being dropped. The charge of abetting blasphemy still stands.

Nevertheless, at the April 25 hearing prosecuting attorneys asserted that Aleem was guilty of blasphemy on grounds that “he is a Christian and can make blasphemous comments about the prophet Muhammad,” according to Katherine Sapna, a field officer for CLAAS.

Aleem’s lawyer, Malik Tafik, said he has filed for upcoming hearings to be closed to the public for fear that Muslim fanatics could try to kill his Christian client. Tafik will present another bail application in the high court of Islamabad on May 14.

Tafik, a Muslim, has come under pressure from the Rawalpindi Bar for taking on the case of a Christian accused of blasphemy. The bar has filed an application against him for handling the case.

Dhamal, the lawyer who allegedly made the death threat against Aleem, is a member of Sunni Tehreek, an Islamist political movement involved in violent sectarian clashes in the last decade.

In the April 25 hearing, five lawyers and 180 Islamist protestors gathered around the courthouse. Tafik said he believes the crowds hoped to intimidate the judge into declaring Aleem guilty. More than 100 protestors have congregated at previous hearings, shouting that Aleem’s life would not be spared and he should be handed over to the police.

Tafik said the judge is afraid to rule in favor of Aleem for fear of his life from Rawalpindi Islamists.

“The judge is under pressure and not deciding the case based on merits,” Tafik said. “He is ready to hear on merits, but the lawyers are just [acting] on the basis of Islamization.”

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have come under heavy fire from international rights groups. Any private citizen can file blasphemy charges, and they have been used in petty disputes as a means of retaliation as they can destroy reputation, livelihood and possibly lead to the death penalty in the conservative Islamic country.

Before his arrest, Aleem led human rights campaigns on behalf of Christians, particularly a land dispute between a congregation and the Rawalpindi Water and Sanitation Agency, which wanted to demolish their church building.

More Muslims than Christians are charged with blasphemy in Pakistan. In 2008 there were 13 cases registered against Muslims in Punjab province, where Aleem resides, and only six against Christians.

Boy Dies

Insulting Islam is a dangerous activity in the conservative nation of 170 million, but with the spread of the Taliban, non-Muslims fear their very existence will make them a target to fundamentalists.

On April 22 Christians in Taiser town, near Karachi, noticed on the walls of their church graffiti that read, “Long Live the Taliban” and calls for Christians to either convert to Islam or pay the jizye, a poll tax under sharia (Islamic law) paid by non-Muslims for protection if they decline to convert.

Armed men arrived on the scene and opened fire on Christians who were erasing the graffiti, injuring five. An 11-year-old boy shot in the attack, Irfan Masih, has reportedly since died from his injuries (see “Taliban-Inspired Attacks Hit Christians,” April 27).

Security forces fear that sectarian violence could erupt in the port city of Karachi. They have banned public gatherings and processions, according to Release International aid agency.

Report from Compass Direct News


Police in Muslim-majority nation suspected of corruption.

ISTANBUL, April 10 (Compass Direct News) – Police have declared three Pakistani men innocent of raping a 13-year-old Christian girl despite eye witness accounts and medical evidence indicating their guilt.

At a hearing in Nankana Sahib district court on April 3, police from the Pakistani town of Sangla Hill, 64 miles from Lahore, cleared 40-year-old Mohammed Shahbaz, 30-year-old Waqas Sadiq and 25-year-old Yousaf Sadiq of accusations of raping and threatening Ambreen Masih.

Shahbaz was the only suspect to attend the hearing, which was initially called to discuss terms of his pre-arrest bail. But Judge Ijaz Hussan Awan said he couldn’t set terms for bail if police didn’t want to arrest or detain him.

“In Pakistan it has always been like this – the wealthy person can approach the police and change the course of an investigation,” said prosecuting attorney Akbar Durrani. “Regarding Christians, they cannot put any pressure on the police for a fair investigation.”

Ambreen and her family accuse Waqas Sadiq and Yousaf Sadiq of kidnapping her and taking her to their family residence. The Masihs accuse the two men and Shahbaz of repeatedly raping her, releasing her after two hours and threatening to kill her if she informed authorities.

The three men, along with a relative, 25-year-old Zahid Riyasat, allegedly kidnapped her a second time on Feb. 5. When her parents started to worry about her absence, her father, Munir Masih, organized a search party with other local Christians. They found the three suspects at the house of the Sadiqs’ father, raping her at gunpoint, according to a First Instance Report (FIR).

As the search party approached the four suspects, the accused fired warning shots into the air and then ran away, Munir Masih said in the report.

Ambreen then returned home with her family. She said that when the captors originally abducted her, they said, “We will kill your parents if you tell them this.”

On Feb. 6 Masih obtained permission from the judicial magistrate of Sangla Hill for an official medical examination of Ambreen, which established that she had been raped. Her parents sought police to file charges against the three men, but officers responded only after CLAAS prompted them to open a case.

After police declared the three men innocent following their investigation, lawyers representing Masih accused family members of the suspects of bribing police.

“In that village, Christians are nothing for the Muslims, they make them work for them and sometimes make them work without paying them,” said CLAAS field worker Katherine Sapna.

The three accused men are part of a wealthy family of land owners in Sangla Hill. Ambreen comes from a poor background and has seven siblings. Her father works as a day laborer, and Ambreen and two of her sisters work as domestic servants.

Attorney Durrani has appealed to the Lahore High Court to put different police officers on the investigation. Although local police declared the three suspects innocent at the April 3 hearing, they did not deny that Ambreen had been raped. But the police did not suggest any other suspects, Durrani told Compass.

Around 60 Christian families live in Sangla Hill, located near the industrial city of Sheikupura, northwest of Lahore.


Murdered Christian

Police reluctance to prosecute crimes against Christians in Pakistan also has hampered Samson Joseph, attorney for the family of Adeel Masih, a 19-year-old Pakistani Christian believed to be the victim of an “honor killing” by two Muslims.

On April 1 the Sessions Court in Gujranwala held a hearing in which police declared the suspects innocent.

Masih was found dead in May 2008 in Hafizabad. Police originally declared his death a suicide, but his family and human rights lawyers believe relatives of a 19-year-old Muslim woman, Kiran Irfan, with whom Masih had a one-year relationship, tortured and killed him.

District police arrested her father, Mohammed Irfan, and her uncle, Muhammad Riasat, in July 2008 – two months after Masih’s family went to Gujranwala police, who initially declined to charge Irfan’s family with any crimes and effectively declared them innocent. A high inspector has reopened the case and taken the two suspects into custody.

Sapna of CLAAS said the case has taken its toll on the family of Adeel Masih, whose father is suffering psychological problems from the apparent murder.

Marriage between Christian men and Muslim women is forbidden according to a strict interpretation of sharia (Islamic law), and even social contacts such as these can incite violent reactions in Pakistan, a majority-Muslim nation of 170 million.

Report from Compass Direct News


Human rights activist could face violence long after trial finishes.

CHICAGO, March 13 (Compass Direct News) – A Pakistani investigator has ruled out a charge against a Christian for “blaspheming Islam” but retained another for abetting blasphemy, and advocates worry the stigma of the charges could make him a target for local Islamists.

Hector Aleem, 51, remains in Adiyala Jail in Rawalpindi, near Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad. His lawyer said he believes law enforcement officers and community members framed Aleem for his social activism on behalf of Christians so that the stigma of the charges would subject him to the danger of violence.

The case began last November when a Muslim scholar received a text message insulting the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Authorities charged Aleem with violating sections 295c (blasphemy) and 109bb (abetting) of the Pakistani criminal code.

Investigating Officer Zafer Ikbal on March 4 ruled out the possibility of a blasphemy charge since evidence showed the message came from an unlisted phone number, not Aleem’s. This move followed a Feb. 2 decision by Judge Sakhi Mohammad Kohut to exonerate Aleem of blasphemy by moving the case from an anti-terrorism court to a magistrate court; with the change of court, the investigating officer had considered anew the possibility of a blasphemy charge.

Phone records in the investigation showed the original culprit had a one-hour conversation with someone at Aleem’s phone number. Aleem claimed that his assistant, Bashar Kokar, was the one who talked with the culprit. As a result, both men were incarcerated and charged with abetment.

In the meantime, Aleem’s attorney, Malik Tafik, has filed an application for bail. He said he hopes it will be approved at a session court hearing next week.

The crime of abetting does not carry a severe penalty in Pakistani criminal law. But in this case, Tafik said, its connection to blasphemy against Islam could put Aleem in danger of attacks by Muslim extremists even if he is found innocent.

“He will continue to be in danger from religious extremists after the case finishes,” Tafik said. “Even though he is only charged with abetment, he is still in danger.”

A Pakistani official concurred that those in the community opposed to Aleem’s human rights activism may have used the charges as a pretext to jail him. Khushdil Khan Malik, deputy secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Human Rights, said Aleem may have been framed due to his social activism as director of a small Non-Governmental Organization that lobbies for the rights of Pakistani Christians in Islamabad.

Last November, Aleem became involved in a land dispute between a congregation and the Rawalpindi Water and Sanitation Agency, which wanted to demolish their church building.

Blasphemy charges carry a particularly dangerous stigma in certain parts of Pakistan. Within Rawalpindi, there is a dedicated following of the Islamist political movement Sunni Tehreek, which has been involved in violent sectarian clashes with other Islamist movements in the last decade. When Aleem was transferred to a Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court for a hearing on Jan. 30, a crowd of 150 protestors gathered, shouting that his life would not be spared and that the police should hand him over to them.

But Malik said the case has nothing to do with sectarian tensions and resulted only from members of the municipality targeting Aleem because they opposed his campaign to save a church slated for destruction.

“Generally the relations between Muslims and Christians are good,” Malik said. “This was a false case against Aleem.”

Aleem’s bail application is pending. But due to current court strikes in Pakistan, the application may take a few weeks, said Katherine Sapna, a field officer for the advocacy group Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). Lawyers are rallying against the government in a bid to reinstate former Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudry, who was deposed by former President Pervez Musharraf.


More ‘Blasphemy’ Cases

Christian legislators have called on the Pakistani Parliament to strike down its blasphemy laws, as they are frequently used against the Muslim-majority country’s Christian minority.

Punishment for blasphemy in Pakistan can potentially mean death, and the charges are easy to file. Private citizens can register a blasphemy case, whereas normal procedure calls for police officers to file charges.

According to a CLAAS report, police opened blasphemy charges against two Christians on March 1 in the village of Malukay, 55 miles southeast of Lahore. Walayat Masih and his daughter Sarina attended a fair in a graveyard to honor a deceased religious figure, Muharri Shah, revered by both local Christians and Muslims.

In the course of the celebrations, local Muslims thought that the Christians had improperly covered an Islamic inscription on the tomb. Soon a mob gathered and began attacking those Christians who weren’t able to flee. A crowd cornered Masih and his daughter and severely beat them until police arrived and took the victims to the police station, where they were charged with blasphemy.

CLAAS is investigating the case. The organization will represent the two in court if charges are not dropped.  

Report from Compass Direct News