Tensions are high in the Punjabi city of Gojra after a court sentenced a Christian man, Sajjad Masih, to life imprisonment for blasphemy, only weeks before the fourth anniversary of an outbreak of extreme violence against Christians in the same city.
In August 2009, seven Christians from the same family were killed – six burned to death – and more than 100 Christian homes set alight by angry Muslims, again over an accusation of blasphemy.
Now, even as local Islamists demanded that Masih’s life imprisonment sentence be exchanged for the death penalty, a further blasphemy case was lodged on July 20; police arrested a Christian couple who were sent to jail the next day.
On July 13, the Gojra Additional Sessions Court convicted Masih of committing blasphemy under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code; for insulting Muhammad, which carries the death penalty.
Masih had been accused of sending blasphemous text messages in a case first lodged in December 2011. Despite an absence of evidence, the court sentenced Masih to life imprisonment (25 years in Pakistan).
The alleged text messages were sent from a SIM card registered in the name of Masih’s former fiancée, Roma. Neither the cell phone nor the SIM was recovered from Masih during police investigation. Nor was there any eyewitness or forensic evidence available.
Analysts say lower court judges, who are provided little security in Pakistan, often concede to pressure from religious groups in blasphemy cases and convict the accused even if little evidence is available.
Some say this is the reason the judge awarded Masih life imprisonment (though not the death penalty) rather than acquitting him.
The day after the verdict, hard-line Islamists staged a sit-in on Mankanwala Crossing in Gojra and condemned the court’s decision.
The protestors demanded Masih’s death, chanting that nothing less than the death of a ‘blasphemer’ was acceptable.
Banners were hung across the city which read: “Only one punishment for the blasphemer; sever his head from the body… Life imprisonment not acceptable, not acceptable and not acceptable.”
This slogan has been promoted in recent years by Lashkar-e-Taiba (currently known as Jammat-ud-Dawa after the US State Department branded Lashkar-e-Taiba a “foreign terrorist organisation” in 2001).
Inter-communal relations in Gojra are tense, especially with the approach of the fourth anniversary of the 2009 attacks. Christians told World Watch Monitor the area’s radical Mobs were again seeking a pretext to attack Christians.