Southern Asia-Pacific

In Pakistan, Adventist sentenced to life imprisonment for alleged blasphemy

In controversial ruling, accuser recanted testimony

Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Elizabeth Lechleitner/ANN

A court in Pakistan this month sentenced a Seventh-day Adventist man to life in prison for allegedly defaming the Prophet Muhammad in a case that falls under the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.

Sajjad Masih, 29, was convicted of sending blasphemous text messages to a member of a religious extremist group in 2011, despite his accuser’s subsequent retraction and prosecutors’ failure to produce any evidence of his involvement. Javed Sahotra, Masih’s defense attorney and fellow Adventist Church member, said the judge buckled under pressure from extremists who dominate the local religious and political landscape.

John Graz, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the Adventist world church, said Masih’s case is not unusual.

“Members of religious minorities in Pakistan live with the constant threat of being accused of blasphemy,” Graz said. “They know that if they are accused, they cannot count on a serious investigation.”

According to news reports, Masih was framed by Donald Bhatti, who in May 2011 forcibly married Masih’s then fiancée, coercing her parents with promises of work visas. Bhatti had dated the young woman before moving to the United Kingdom, and is said to have still been jealous of her relationship with Masih. After the ceremony, Bhatti immediately returned to the U.K., taking his new wife with him. Masih and his former fiancée, however, maintained a close friendship, frequently calling each other.

In late December, the Gojra police ransacked Masih’s house, looking for evidence and intending to arrest him, Sahotra said. His accuser, Tariq Saleem, had informed local police of the text messages and urged them to track the mobile number and arrest its owner, he said. 

The number was later found to be registered in Bhatti’s wife’s name. She told Masih that Bhatti had purchased a SIM using her ID card and arranged for an accomplice to send the messages, hoping to muddy their relationship, Sahotra said. 

Gojra police arrested Masih on December 28, 2011. His lawyer accompanied him to the Gojra City Police Station, where he hoped Masih could record a statement and clear his name, church leaders said.

But the case was registered under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which call for death or life imprisonment for any person found guilty of blaspheming Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam.

Michael Ditta, president of the Adventist Church’s Pakistan Union, said the laws are notoriously used to take revenge on Christians and other religious minorities. Pakistan is 96 percent Muslim, with only 2 percent of the country’s population identifying itself as Christian.

“We as a minority faith are concerned about the misuse of this law and growing intolerance toward Christians in the country,” Ditta said.

Earlier this year, Pakistan was categorized as a “tier 1” country by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom for “systemic, ongoing and egregious” intolerance toward minority faith groups.

At the police station, Masih said he was forced, under duress, to “confess” to sending the text messages, Sahotra said. He was subsequently sent to prison to await trial. 

After more than a year and a half in District Jail Toba Take Singh, Masih has been sentenced to life in prison, despite the fact that under cross-examination, his accuser admitted he had not received any blasphemous text messages as he originally claimed.

Furthermore, affidavits from Masih’s co-workers confirm that he was at work in Pakpattan at the time prosecutors claim he sent the text messages from his former fiance’s cell phone.

Sahotra said he is planning to appeal the ruling in early August.  

At world church headquarters in the U.S. state of Maryland, Graz and other members of the newly-formed Defense of Members Persecuted for Religious Reasons Committee are monitoring Masih’s case. The committee is also advocating on behalf of Antonio Monteiro, another Adventist Church member arbitrarily detained.

“We want our members and government leaders to know that the Seventh-day Adventist Church takes these cases very seriously,” Graz said.

“What is happening to Sajjad Masih is another tragic example of the abuse of blasphemy laws in some parts of Pakistan. Oppressing people on behalf of a religion contradicts the message of peace and justice to all religions that we advocate.”