By WAQAR GILLANI and SALMAN MASOODMARCH 27, 2014
LAHORE, Pakistan — A court here found a Christian sanitation worker guilty of blasphemy on Thursday and sentenced him to death, in a case that set off rioting and the torching of a Christian neighborhood last year.
Although Pakistan has never carried out an execution under its blasphemy laws, it has often taken little more than the rumor of insults to Islam to incite lynchings and other violence.
That was the case in March 2013, when a Muslim friend of the condemned man, Sawan Masih, said that during an argument between the men, Mr. Masih had insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Two days later, enraged mobs swept through Joseph Colony, a Christian neighborhood in the city of Lahore, and set more than 170 houses and two churches on fire. The riots caused panic among the city’s Christians, most of whom are poor and able to find only menial labor, and sent hundreds of them fleeing.
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A lawyer for Mr. Masih, 35, said Thursday that he would appeal the case to the Lahore High Court, which must sign off on death penalty cases. In a statement, Mr. Masih insisted that he had been falsely charged as part of a plot by businessmen to use blasphemy allegations to drive Christians from the land in Joseph Colony so that it could be seized for industrial use.
“They hatched a conspiracy to push out the residents of the colony,” the statement said. “They contrived a case and got it filed by a person who was close to me. I am innocent.”
The case has once again turned a spotlight on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which human rights groups say have been used as a weapon to settle personal scores and persecute religious minorities in the country. Many of those accused never make it to trial, and are instead killed by vigilantes.
Even speaking out against the laws has sometimes brought death. In 2011, Salmaan Taseer, the liberal governor of Punjab Province, was killed by one of his own security guards after campaigning to have the laws repealed. Two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian politician who had criticized the laws, was fatally shot in Islamabad.
Now, in addition to reviving the debate over blasphemy, Mr. Masih’s case may draw attention to another issue: the death penalty in Pakistan.
Although Pakistani courts have ordered death sentences on a variety of charges, thousands of inmates have been parked on death row since a government moratorium on executions began in 2008. But since the election last year of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has publicly supported capital punishment, analysts speculated that the government might move to hold executions.
On Thursday, Amnesty International released its annual report on the state of capital punishment worldwide, including a review of Pakistan’s policy.