The family of Sajjad Masih Gill, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2013. (Photo supplied)
A Pakistani court has agreed to hear a petition seeking the death sentence for a Christian previously jailed for life after being convicted of sending text messages defaming Prophet Muhammad.
Lahore High Court on March 10 admitted a petition to revise the judgment of Sajjad Masih Gill, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and send it to the division bench.
Senior lawyer Zeeshan Ahmed Awan filed the revision petition. Such petitions are often seen often as a service to Islam and as jihad or holy war against blasphemers.
In July 2013, a trial court sentenced Gill, from Gojra town in Punjab province, to life imprisonment for sending a controversial text message to a Muslim man in December 2011. The verdict included a fine of 314,500 rupees (US$2,000).
He had been arrested by police who traced his mobile phone number through a cellphone tower.
In 2015, his brother and nephew reported being attacked and threatened by unknown persons while returning home after visiting Gill in Central Jail Sahiwal, the largest prison in Asia spanning 283,280 square meters.
In 2016, two lawyers of the Legal Evangelical Association and Development reported similar threats by armed men on the road between Kasur and Lahore. Both had defended Gill and appealed to the Lahore High Court.
Lawyer Awan in a Facebook post praised the court move to revise Gill’s punishment, with the possibility of issuing him a death sentence.
Awan, who was among the prosecuting lawyers in court, said the court had accepted the prosecution's argument that capital punishment was the only possible sentence for blasphemy and that life imprisonment was “repugnant” to the injunctions of Islam.
The revision petition comes amid orthodox Muslims' demand to make capital punishment the only penalty for blasphemy. They argue life imprisonment as an alternative punishment violates Islamic ethos and Shariat regulations.
They argue Pakistan’s Federal Shariat Court had already said an alternative punishment of life imprisonment went against the injunctions of Islam, but federal and provincial governments have not implemented it.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws envisage death as the maximum punishment for insulting Prophet Muhammad. Rights activists say laws have been used against the followers of other religions and minority Muslims such as Shias.
Last month Lahore High Court adjourned without hearing a much-awaited appeal from Shagufta Kausar and her husband Shafqat Emmanuel, a Christian couple facing the death penalty for the last seven years after being convicted of blasphemy.
According to the Lahore-based Centre for Social Justice, the highest number of blasphemy accused (200) was reported last year. Since 1987, Punjab province has experienced the highest ratio of abuse of law and religion (76 percent) followed by 19 percent in Sindh province.
* The headline and content of this story have been edited since its publication for clarity and factual correctness.