February 6, 2016

Gunmen Threaten Lawyers of Jailed Adventist in Pakistan

Defense lawyers for a Seventh-day Adventist believer serving a life sentence under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws were threatened by gunmen while traveling to an appeals hearing in the High Court of Lahore.

The two lawyers were detained on the road between Kasur and Lahore by armed men who warned of violence if the lawyers persisted in their defense of Sajjad Masih Gill, 31, the ACI Prensa news agency reported.

Masih, an Adventist Church member, was convicted in 2013 of sending text messages defaming the prophet Mohammad, an allegation that he has consistently denied.

He was found guilty despite a trial defined by controversy and irregularities. In the course of the prosecution, Masih’s original accuser retracted his allegations, and the prosecutor failed to produce any evidence of wrongdoing. At the time, Masih’s defense lawyer, Javed Sahotra, said that intense pressure by extremists played a decisive role in obtaining a conviction despite the lack of evidence.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have garnered international condemnation and have generated reports of false accusations and wrongful convictions. Since 1986, when the definition of blasphemy under Pakistan’s Penal Code was expanded, the number of accusations and convictions under the laws have increased dramatically. Under the laws, those convicted of words or actions defaming Mohammad — the most serious of the blasphemy offenses — must be sentenced to either death or life in prison. International watchdogs say the most vulnerable under the blasphemy laws are religious minorities, including Christians, who make up only around 2 percent of Pakistan’s population.

Ganoune Diop, director of public affairs and religious liberty for the Adventist world church, said blasphemy laws are fundamentally incompatible with the principles of freedom of religion or belief.

“These laws tend to be used to restrict the activities of religious minorities, to limit free expression of religious thought or conscience and, at times, to target groups or individuals for discrimination or persecution,” Diop said.

“While it’s important to always treat others with respect, true religious freedom allows all people to make claims according to their own convictions, without being demeaned, harassed, or subject to violence,” he said.

More than 20 percent of the world’s countries — including many countries of the Middle East, as well as Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia — have anti-blasphemy laws or policies, a recent Pew Research Center study found.

Lawyer Dwayne Leslie, an associate director of the public affairs and religious liberty department of the Adventist world church, has followed Masih's case closely, and he urged church members to keep Masih and his family in their prayers.

“Religious minorities in Pakistan live not only with the fear of accusation under blasphemy laws, but also with the knowledge that these cases are often not prosecuted justly,” Leslie said.

In light of the Jan. 29 incident with the gunmen, Masih’s lawyers sought and received a postponement of his appeals hearing until Feb. 16.