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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 November, 2003, 17:20 GMT
Death penalty in blasphemy case
By Paul Anderson
BBC correspondent in Islamabad

Veiled women listening to a speech by President Musharraf
Islamist influence has grown recently
A man has been sentenced to death for blasphemy, Pakistani police say.

Niaz Ahmed was arrested in central Pakistan in July after villagers told police they heard him making insulting comments about the Prophet Mohammed.

The 55-year-old Muslim has pleaded not guilty to the accusations and is expected to appeal against the verdict.

Human rights groups say Pakistan's blasphemy laws are routinely abused to settle land disputes and village or tribal vendettas.

Immediate arrests

Mr Ahmed's conviction carries a mandatory death sentence and a large fine.

No one has been hanged for blasphemy in Pakistan and that is largely because higher courts routinely overturn blasphemy convictions.

The judicial and investigative process is steeped against anyone accused of insulting Islam, the Prophet Mohammed or the Islamic holy book, the Koran.

Suspects in blasphemy cases are immediately arrested and presented before a court without a police or magistrate's investigation.

Judges are often too scared of the reaction from powerful local Islamic leaders to throw out cases.

Reform calls

Human rights group say the law needs reform.

One group reported an increase in cases against Christians and other minorities as well as against Muslims last year.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has been calling for changes in procedures so investigators can at least test the validity of blasphemy accusations before cases reach the courts.

However, President Musharraf recently backed down from reforming the blasphemy law in the face of intense opposition from hardline religious leaders.



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