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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Law and the Sword in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- What is proper punishment for a 14-year-old boy accused of defiling a mosque with sacrilegious graffiti?

Death by hanging, Pakistani law and a judge in the city of Lahore have decided.

The harsh penalty meted out this month to young Salamat Masih and another Christian, Rehmat Masih, 40, has beamed a glaring spotlight on Pakistan's anti-blasphemy law, meant to punish insults against Islam and the prophet Mohammed.

For some Pakistanis, the legislation and the mandatory death penalty that it carries cut to the quick their country's uneasy efforts to balance Islamic sanctity with a largely secular political and legal system. Pakistan's small Christian community is particularly alarmed.

"Time has proven that this law has become a sword in the hands of religious fanatics who are out to eliminate religious minorities," Roman Catholic Bishop John Joseph said.

Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto pronounced herself "surprised, shocked and saddened" by the Feb. 9 verdict.

But badly stung last year by the ire of Islamic clerics who opposed her plan to amend the anti-blasphemy law, Bhutto said this time that she would not interfere in the legal process.

Despite her caution, a charge of contempt of court was brought against the prime minister for her comment. The charges were dropped Monday

Asma Jahangir, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the defendants' attorney, appealed the verdict. On Monday, as about 300 Moslem militants chanted slogans outside the court and demanded the death sentence be carried out, the two judges hearing the appeal adjourned the case until Tuesday.

The trial of the Masihs before Judge Mujahid Hussain was chilling, sometimes Kafkaesque. There was no physical evidence against the defendants, and the accounts of the three Moslems who brought the complaint conflicted on certain points.

The court was never explicitly told what had allegedly been chalked on the wall of the mosque in the Punjabi farming village of Ratta Dhotran on May 9, 1993. The complainants said they erased the offensive remarks immediately. As for police, "the investigating officer admits that he did not read the words," said Mehbood Ahmed, a lawyer associated with the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Perhaps most bizarre and troubling is the defense lawyer's contention that the younger Masih, who was 12 at the time of the alleged scribbling, is illiterate, and therefore could not have written anything at all.

During the trial, one of the complainants, Muhammad Baksh Lambardar, had trouble reading a copy of the kalima tayyaba, the basic credo that most Moslems know by heart. Which led some to wonder: How could he have read graffiti to judge it blasphemous?

Despite such holes in the case against the defendants, said to be unrelated, Hussain found them both guilty, sweeping aside their contention that Christian-Moslem tensions in the village led neighbors to bear false witness.

"No Moslem in my considered opinion would stoop so low as to prepare such indecent material containing derogatory remarks about the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him,'' the judge said.

Attorneys for a militant Moslem group that had sought the guilty verdict were jubilant.

"Every Moslem who believes and has faith should be happy about the decision,'' lawyer Ismail Qureshi of the Anjuman Khatme Nabuwat organization said.

There had been a third defendant, Manzoor Masih, 40, charged in the same episode. But he was killed outside the Lahore High Court last April by unidentified gunmen. Masih, meaning "messiah," is a common family name among Pakistani Christians.

According to Jahangir, the controversial case "concerns the very survival of non-Moslems in this country, if the final word is that a Moslem cannot make a false accusation in such a case."

Jahangir had an encounter with the intense passions aroused by the case last Thursday, after she argued her appeal before the Lahore High Court. As she walked to her car, she was threatened by some 200 men wearing green turbans. They threatened her, then grabbed and pummeled her driver. The windows of her car were smashed. "If they beat my driver, damage my car, they can also kill me tomorrow," Jahangir said.

Last week, Bhutto said her government was holding consultations with religious parties to discuss making procedural changes in the blasphemy law. But it is uncertain what she can do.

Bhutto's government suggested last year that the law be amended to prevent it from being misused. But death threats were made against her law minister, and the uproar from traditionalists was so great that Bhutto had to backtrack.

No one has ever been executed under the law, but according to the press at least six people accused of breaking it have been killed by incensed mobs. (LAT, Reuters)