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Friday, 8 May, 1998, 17:22 GMT 18:22 UK
Pakistan's Christians in the spotlight
Christian protest in Karachi
Christians in Karachi protest against the blasphemy laws
The suicide of a Roman Catholic bishop in Pakistan in protest against a death sentence handed down on a Christian has once again focused attention on the country's blasphemy laws. But the BBC's South Asia specialist Alastair Lawson says that most death sentences are eventually over-turned by the High Courts.

In recent years there have been several cases in Pakistan in which Christians have been sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam. The most famous involved a teenaged boy, Salamat Masih, who was accused of writing blasphemous graffiti on the side of a mosque. His death sentence and conviction was quashed in 1995 by the High Court in Lahore, following an international outcry.

Since then there has been a concerted effort by Pakistan's two million Christians to have the blasphemy laws repealed.

looking at Dr Joseph's coffin
Dr Joseph's death has focused attention again on blasphemy laws
That campaign seems to have failed with the passing of a death sentence last month on Ayub Masih, who was found guilty of publicly insulting the prophet Mohammed in the province of Punjab. It is this sentence which upset the Bishop of Faisalabad, Dr John Joseph, who shot himself in the head in protest.

Since 1995 there have been at least three other death sentences passed by session court judges in Pakistan, all of which have been over-turned on appeal to the High Court.

Saved by his beard

Regional criminal courts in Pakistan are run by some judges appointed during the dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq. These appointees veer towards a literal interpretation of Islam, and often have close political and family ties with senior community leaders.

Western human rights organisations frequently point out that their handling of cases depends more on political considerations than the fair administration of justice.

In one famous blasphemy trial in the province of Punjab in 1995 a judge was reputed to have commented that a witness for the prosecution must have been telling the truth because he had a beard, and therefore was a good Muslim.

Fear of international condemnation

Most high-ranking politicians in Pakistan prefer to stay well clear of the controversy surrounding blasphemy trials, and refuse to speak about individual cases in public. Yet there is little doubt that the political establishment does not approve of the death sentence in such cases.

The carrying out of such a sentence would provoke severe criticism from various human rights organisations, which could damage Pakistan's international image. It could also prompt many western countries to cut back on aid and trade to Pakistan at a time when the country is desperately seeking foreign investment.

Meanwhile, lawyers' and human rights groups say the government should either repeal the blasphemy law or put ironclad safeguards against it being used for malicious charges or to persecute non-Muslims.

But opposition to changing the blasphemy law has unified the usually quarrelsome hard-line Islamic parties and given them a chance to found a political power base that has eluded them for years. For the time being blasphemy trials in Pakistan look set to have a certain repetitiveness: a defendant will be sentenced to death by the lower court, only for the High Court to overturn the penalty on appeal.

See also:

09 Sep 98 | South Asia
Pakistani blasphemy suicide protest
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