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Thursday, 15 August, 2002, 19:27 GMT 20:27 UK
Pakistani court frees 'blasphemer'
Pakistani Christians at prayer
Rights groups condemn the blasphemy laws

Pakistan's supreme court has overturned the conviction of a Christian who was sentenced to death for blasphemy.

Dr John Joseph
The late bishop was also a leading human rights campaigner
His death sentence had led a Catholic bishop to commit suicide outside the courtroom in protest.

The supreme court ordered that the Christian, Ayub Masih, should be released immediately.

Mr Masih was sentenced to death more than four years ago after being found guilty of blasphemy in a public place.

He denied the accusation, saying it was made by individuals who wanted to steal his land.

Calls for repeal

Ten days after the sentence was passed, the bishop of Faisalabad, Doctor John Joseph, shot himself in the head with a pistol in front of the courtroom in the Punjab province.

Colleagues said the bishop, who had long campaigned against Pakistan's blasphemy laws, had been very worried because he could not find a lawyer willing to defend Mr Masih.

Human rights groups welcomed Mr Masih's acquittal and called for the blasphemy laws to be repealed.

There have been several cases where Christians have been given the death penalty for blasphemy against Islam.

And last year a doctor became the third Muslim to be sentenced to death for allegedly making blasphemous remarks about the prophet Mohammed.

Hardline pressure

Activists say there has been a sharp increase in the number of cases over the past years although the death penalty has never been carried out.

Even those who have been acquitted by a higher court find themselves under attack by extremist groups and lawyers and judges dealing with blasphemy cases are often threatened.

The Pakistani Government tried to amend the law to allow an enquiry before any arrest in an attempt to curb false blasphemy cases but it pulled back under pressure from religious hardliners.

Musharraf's Pakistan

Democracy challenge

Militant threat

Background

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FROM THE ARCHIVES

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See also:

10 May 98 | S/W Asia
11 Aug 02 | South Asia
09 Aug 02 | South Asia
09 Aug 02 | South Asia
05 Aug 02 | South Asia
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