A court in Lahore sentenced a Christian bicycle mechanic to death on blasphemy charges on July 4, five years after he was arrested for allegedly disrespecting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by saying that Jesus Christ is the only ‘true prophet’, his lawyer said.
Ashfaq Masih, 36, was arrested from the Green Town area in 2017 after he got into an argument with a Muslim customer at his shop when the man refused to pay his bill.
Masih’s lawyer Riaz Anjum told Kross Konnection that the customer, Muhammad Irfan, had asked Masih not to charge him for the repair on the grounds that he was a religious devotee – but Masih refused the request, saying he believed in Jesus Christ and wasn’t interested in the man’s religious status as a Muslim.
READ MORE: The dilemma of blasphemy accusations in Pakistan
Advocate Anjum said that during the proceedings Masih insisted he was innocent of the charges and that the case against him was “baseless, false and frivolous”.
“I insisted for my bill and said that I don’t follow anyone other than Jesus, and so wasn’t interested in the man’s religious status,” the lawyer quoted his client as telling the court.
“Masih told the court that the dispute between him and Irfan was exploited by the shop owner Muhammad Ashfaq and Muhammad Naveed, who also had a bicycle and motorbike repair shop near his business but it wasn’t doing well. According to Masih, Naveed was jealous of his success and provoked Irfan to accuse him of blasphemy while Ashfaq had been repeatedly pressurizing him to vacate the shop,” he added.
Advocate Anjum said he told Additional Sessions Judge Khalid Wazir that the FIR [First Information Report] of the case did not contain any words that showed that his client had committed blasphemy.
READ MORE: Christian brothers on death row for alleged blasphemy await justice
“Moreover, in his statement recorded with the police under Section 161, the complainant Muhammad Ashfaq claimed that when Irfan told him that Masih was committing blasphemy, he and some other men went to the Christian’s shop where they saw him doing the same.
“Nowhere in the recorded testimony or FIR there is a mention of the alleged blasphemous words,” the lawyer said.
According to Anjum, the prosecution’s most relevant evidence against his client should have been Irfan who had accused Masih of blasphemy, but he was not presented in court. The prosecution presented only two out of the total five witnesses during the trial and even their statements were contradictory, he added.
“I pleaded the court to give benefit of the doubt to my client because there was no direct evidence linking him with the alleged offense but the judge handed Masih the death sentence,” he said.
READ MORE: Blasphemy case lingers on for Christian youth in Pakistan
Masih’s older brother, Mehmood Masih told Kross Konnection that the family was reduced to tears following the judgement.
“Ashfaq has an eight-year-old daughter. She was three years old when he was arrested and now we don’t know how much more time she will have to wait to be with her father,” he said.
Masih has been in prison for five years awaiting his conviction due to a series of adjournments. His mother died in 2019 while he was behind bars and he was released on parole to visit her funeral. The family has now engaged former Pakistan Bar Council Vice Chairman Abid Saqi to file an appeal against the conviction in the Lahore High Court.
Human Friends Organization President Sajid Christopher said his organisation would bear the legal cost of the appeal.
“I’m extremely disappointed by Masih’s conviction. We have assured the family that we will support them in courts and all other forums till the release of their loved one,” he told Kross Konnection.
Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan where mere accusations often provoke mob violence and lynching of suspects, while penalties are light for those who make such false accusations.
READ MORE: 80-year-old ‘beheaded’ for alleged blasphemy in Sargodha
Church of Pakistan’s Moderator Bishop Azad Marshall said Masih’s conviction by the trial court vindicated their stance that subordinate courts capitulate to pressure in blasphemy cases, resulting in convictions in almost all cases.
“It has become a norm here that trial courts save their own skin and shift the burden to the high court.
“The entire country knows that a majority of blasphemy cases are made to settle personal grudges or for other vested interests but the State is not doing anything to curb this dangerous trend of false accusations,” he lamented.
READ MORE: Hindu school principal handed 25 years imprisonment for alleged blasphemy
A number of people have been sentenced to death in Pakistan for blasphemy.
In January, a Rawalpindi court sentenced a Muslim woman to death after finding her guilty of blasphemy for insulting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in text messages she sent to a friend.
The woman, Aneeqa Atteeq, was arrested in May 2020 after the man told police that she sent him blasphemous caricatures via WhatsApp. According to the court’s order, the woman was also sentenced to 10 years in jail.
READ MORE: 42 Muslims accused of blasphemy in Pakistan in 2021
In December 2021, a mob descended on a sports equipment factory in Sialkot, killing a Sri Lankan man and burning his body publicly over allegations of blasphemy. The incident drew nationwide condemnation and authorities arrested dozens of people over involvement in the killing of Priyantha Kumara.