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February 14 1995

Defense counsel Asma Jehangir, head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), said she will appeal to the Lahore High Court against the death sentences of two Christians, one 14, for blasphemy.

On Feb. 9, Lahore District and Sessions Court Judge Mujahid Hussain gave the death penalty for blaspheming Prophet Mohammad to Salamat Masih, 14, and Rehmat Masih, 44. Salamat was 12 at the time of the alleged offense in 1992.

Writing in the newspaper The News in Islamabad Feb. 11, columnist Muddasir Rizvi condemned the court action against a child being charged with blasphemy, which in Pakistan carries an automatic death penalty if convicted.

"In violation of the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Punjab Youthful Offenders Ordinance, Salamat Masih, a juvenile, was sentenced to death by a Pakistani Court ..." Rizvi wrote.

"The Punjab Youthful Offenders Ordinance clearly states that no child under the age of 15 years in the province of Punjab shall be sentenced to death or transportation or any imprisonment, whereas the convention forbids capital punishment for children under the age of 18 years."

Rizvi said that "Pakistan set aside all its promises and provisions of the international convention by sentencing to death a 14-year-old Christian child under the controversial provisions 295-A and C of the blasphemy law.

"Salamat was under the age of 12 when he committed the act of blasphemy and section 83 of the Pakistan Penal Code states, ´Nothing is an offense which is done by a child above 7 years of age and under 12 years of age who has not attained sufficient maturity or understanding to judge the nature and consequences of his conduct on that occasion,´" Rizvi wrote.

Both Christians were arrested in May 1993 with another Christian, Manzoor Masih, in Gujranwala, Punjab province, on the complaint of Maulvi Faztul Haq, a member of a Sunni religious group and the Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan party.

The Islamic leader claimed the three wrote blasphemous statements against the prophet on a poster and other papers. The charges were denied.

Manzoor Masih ("Masih" -- messiah -- is a name that identifies Pakistani Christians) was shot to death just after the three were released on bail in April 1994 in Lahore by unidentified assailants who remained at large.

After the guilty verdict was pronounced Feb. 9, police took Rehmat and Salamat into custody. Pakistan´s controversial anti-blasphemy law was enacted during the martial law rule of the late Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq.

Two other Christians, Gul Masih and Arsliad Javed, also received the death penalty on blasphemy charges in 1992, but both were acquitted Nov. 27, 1994, on appeal to the Lahore High Court.

In a statement Jan. 4, Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad confirmed that Gul Masih left Pakistan due to threats against his life after acquittal. "Now, by the grace of God, he is safe and happy in a foreign country," the bishop said.

"He is very grateful to all those who helped him against the false accusation, and to all those who gave him protection after his release and to those who made his stay in a foreign land possible.

"Very specially, Gul Masih and the whole Christian community are deeply grateful to the Lahore High Court which has saved the life of an innocent person falsely accused.

"Our confidence is restored," the bishop said of the ruling on Gul Masih, who according to later media reports has found asylum in Germany.

In 1994, Christians, who are about 2 percent of Pakistan´s 128 million people, held protests against Muslim militants who summarily executed persons accused of blasphemy. Many were jailed for lesser violations.

Christian and other religious minorities demanded amendments providing safeguards such as punishing false blasphemy complaints. The HRCP and other private human rights advocacy groups supported the protesters´ demands.

The Pakistan government promised to review the law, but, although some Muslims voiced support for safeguards, others opposed amending the law.

In October 1994, Law Minister Syed Ibqal Haider announced the blasphemy law would not be abolished, but amendments would allow only judges to register blasphemy cases after examining evidence, and to punish false complaints.