Lawyer, in Exclusive to TML: Christians in Pakistan Suffer Caste-Like Discrimination
Pakistani Christian sentenced to death for ‘blasphemous’ WhatsApp message; community has long suffered violence and discrimination
[Islamabad] A Christian man was sentenced to death in Pakistan on Tuesday, for remarks he allegedly made about the Prophet Muhammad in a text message.
Asif Pervez, 37, a garment factory worker, was convicted of blasphemy and ordered to serve three years in prison for violating Pakistan’s Telegraph Act through his use of the WhatsApp platform to send the message in question to his supervisor and to pay a fine of 50,000 Pakistani rupees ($300), before being hanged.
District Court Judge Mansoor Qureshi announced the verdict in Lahore, the capital of Punjab Province.
The verdict also stated that the “accused shall serve six [additional] months in prison if he does not pay the fine,” adding that the time already spent in jail during the trial should be deducted from the sentence.
[Asif Pervez] submitted an oath in an affidavit in which he stated that the supervisor wanted him to convert to Islam but he refused
Pervez, then living in a poor area of Lahore, was taken into custody in 2013, after “a case was registered against him under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code at the Township Police station.”
The blasphemy case was registered on the complaint of Saeed Ahmed, Pervez’s factory supervisor, who claimed that he had sent a blasphemous message to him via WhatsApp, using his mobile phone.
Pervez’s lawyer, Saif ul Malook, told The Media Line that “the trial was completed in three years in which six witnesses appeared. … My client had denied all the allegations that were framed by the complainant.”
Malook added that his client had “submitted an oath in an affidavit in which he stated that the supervisor wanted him to convert to Islam but he refused,” leading to the charges being laid against him.
“According to the Constitution of Pakistan, the death sentence will not be carried out until the provincial High Court upholds the verdict,” Malook continued. “According to the law, after receiving copies of the verdict, the defendant has the legal right to appeal against his sentence to the High Court concerned within seven days, and a two-member bench hears the appeal.
“We will file an appeal against the district judge’s ruling,” Malook said.
Pakistan has yet to execute anyone for blasphemy because most of the accused sentenced to death have had their death penalties overturned in higher courts.
Inayat Ullah, a leading Rawalpindi-based lawyer and a former judge, told The Media Line that “Pakistan has yet to execute anyone for blasphemy because most of the accused sentenced to death have had their death penalties overturned in higher courts.
“A majority of such defendants are convicted by lower courts. Then appellate courts find evidence of fabricated cases which are mostly based on personal or political vendettas,” Ullah said.
Muhammad Yasir Bashir, a senior lawyer who practices in the Lahore High Court’s Rawalpindi division, told The Media Line that “according to section 295-C of the state constitution, ‘Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to fine.”
It is a good sign of coexistence that a Muslim lawyer is standing as a defense counsel for a Christian man who is sentenced to death on blasphemy charges
Muhammed Bilal Nasiri, a lawyer who practices in the Federal Sharia Court in Islamabad, told The Media Line, “In October 1990, the Federal Sharia Court ruled that section 295-C was repugnant to Islam by permitting life imprisonment as an alternative to a death sentence.
“The Sharia Court ruled that ‘the penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) is death,’” he said.
“The Pakistan Penal Code also prohibits blasphemy against any recognized religion [including Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc],” Nasiri continued. “The blasphemy laws are not specific to the defamation of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him). Any citizen of Pakistan, regardless of religion, who insults any holy personality of another religion shall be dealt with the same laws.”
Addressing Pervez’s death sentence, Nasiri said, “However, under Article 10A of Pakistan’s constitution, the state must provide for the right to a fair trial.
“It is a good sign of coexistence that a Muslim lawyer is standing as a defense counsel for a Christian man who is sentenced to death on blasphemy charges,” he added.
Peter Jacob is executive director of the Lahore-based Center for Social Justice and chairperson of the Peoples Commission for Minorities’ Rights advocacy group.
“At least 205 Christians were charged under the blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2018,” Jacob told The Media Line. However, “the center does not have data about cases in 2019-2020,” he added.
Despite zero executions in the blasphemy cases, as of January 2018 at least 75 people [accused of the offense] had been killed by angry mobs or individuals
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“Most of them were sentenced to death but it was overturned or commuted on appeal in higher courts,” Jacob said. “Data compiled by the center also shows that Lahore has been an extraordinary locus of incidence of blasphemy cases in Pakistan,” he continued.
“Despite zero executions in the blasphemy cases, as of January 2018 at least 75 people [accused of the offense] had been killed by angry mobs or individuals,” Jacob said. “Fourteen were in Lahore, including the assassination of retired Christian High Court Judge Arif Iqbal Bhatti.”
Bhatti and another Lahore High Court judge acquitted two Christian men of blasphemy charges in 1995. He was accused of committing blasphemy by acquitting the 1995 defendants, and a mobster murdered him two years later.
Jacob is optimistic that “the present government will take positive steps regarding these laws so that no more innocent persons will be killed because of personal enmity because of them.”
The Christian community in Pakistan has long been the target of violence and discrimination.
Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, a banned terrorist group, for years actively targeted the Christian community across the country.
Most recently in 2017, at least nine Christians were killed and 57 others were wounded in a suicide attack at the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta.
In March 2016, one of the deadliest incidents took place in Lahore. A Jamaat Ul Ehrar (a TTP splinter group) suicide bomber blew himself up in Gulshan e Iqbal Park; at least 72 Christians, mostly women and children, were killed, and about 340 were critically wounded. Christian families had gathered in the park to celebrate Easter.
In September 2013, a suicide attack on the historic All Saints Church in Peshawar killed 75 people, while in March 2015, twin blasts rocked Saint John Roman Catholic Church and Christ Church during Sunday services in Lahore, killing scores of worshipers.
As far back as August 2002, three Christian nurses were killed in a grenade attack on a chapel in the Taxila Christian Hospital; in September of that year, seven Christian charity workers were killed in an attack in Karachi; and then, on Christmas Day, three girls were killed when a Presbyterian church was targeted.
One of the worst cases was the brutal killing of a Christian couple, Shahzad and Shama, which took place in the city of Kot Radha Kishan in Punjab. In 2014, both were severely beaten by a mob and were thrown in an open furnace in which both were burned to ashes. Neighbors had accused them of desecrating a Quran
Asif John Paul, an Islamabad-based Christian’s rights activist, told The Media Line that “in addition to the terror attacks on churches, one of the worst cases was the brutal killing of a Christian couple, Shahzad and Shama, which took place in the city of Kot Radha Kishan in Punjab.
“In 2014, both were severely beaten by a mob and were thrown in an open furnace in which both were burned to ashes. Neighbors had accused them of desecrating a Quran,” he said.
“In 2017, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in its report on the blasphemy laws presented in the Senate of Pakistan, proposed procedural amendments to the laws to prevent their misuse, with a special mention of repentance,” Paul said. However, this proposal has yet to come to fruition, he added.
Besides the constant threat of violence, Christians also experience discrimination in employment. They are typically relegated to the most menial tasks, such as cleaning and garbage collection, including using their bare hands to unclog drainpipes of feces, plastic bags and hazardous hospital refuse in cities and towns across the country. Normally they are called “sweepers” or “sanitary workers.”
Mary James Gill, a Christian Lahore-based lawyer and human rights activist and a former member of the Punjab Provincial Assembly, spoke to The Media Line in an exclusive interview.
Our forefathers joined Pakistan [after independence] because there was, apparently, no space for caste-based discrimination, but why is it continuing?
Gill, who won the Swedish government’s prestigious Anna Lindh Prize 2020 for fighting for the rights and safety of sweepers, said, “The Christian community in Pakistan is estimated at 2.5 million, or roughly 1.5% of the total population.”
She said she launched the Sweepers Are Superheroes advocacy campaign in 2015 “to draw attention to the poor conditions in which the sanitary workers live and raise the issue of the indignities faced in society by members of this profession.
“Workshops, research forums and volunteer campaigns through various social media tools helped to mobilize masses and draw the attention of society,” Gill said.
“One of the major issues that surfaced was the Punjab Health Department’s policy that clearly stated that ‘only non-Muslims would be recruited for sanitation work,’ she said. “I asked the then Chief Minister [of Punjab Province] Shehbaz Sharif that this policy be struck down, as it was discriminatory.
“Sharif was shocked to learn of this [the policy] and ordered the health minister to strike it down, which was done in a month,” Gill said.
She added that “according to the data collected by the Lahore Waste Management Company, at least 250 sanitation workers have died at work.
“Our forefathers joined Pakistan [after independence] because there was, apparently, no space for caste-based discrimination, but why is it continuing?” she asked.
“I urged the Punjab government, through various means, to realize that providing safety to sanitation workers is a prerequisite for water sanitation hygiene,” Gill said. “I raised the same questions in my June 2017 budget speech on the floor of Punjab Assembly but it was in vain.”