Nadeem Masih in a still from a July 2016 video interview with Rescue Christians (YouTube)

Six days after a Pakistani Christian was sentenced to death for blasphemy, the young man’s lawyer says there was insufficient evidence against his client and that the police failed to investigate the matter properly.

Nadeem Masih, 24, from the Yaqoobabad area of the religiously conservative city of Gujrat, in Punjab Province, was judged to have sent four messages via WhatsApp to his Muslim friend which defamed Islam’s prophet, Muhammad. On 14 September, he was fined the equivalent of around $3000 and sentenced to death.

But his lawyer, Riaz Anjum, says there are still unanswered questions from the trial, which was conducted in the prison where Masih was being held, for security reasons – in case of a mob gathering if he was transported elsewhere. According to the first information report (FIR) provided by the police to the court, the first blasphemous text was sent on 23 June 2016, but the complaint by his friend, whom Masih has known since childhood, wasn’t lodged for another 17 days.

“No-one has seen Masih sending messages; hence, it is only hearsay, which is not admissible evidence.”

Riaz Anjum

“Messages were sent over a period of time and it took 17 days to lodge the first information report with the police,” Anjum told World Watch Monitor. “If there was provocation, then the response should have been immediate and Yasir Bashir [the complainant] would have gone to the police much earlier.

“During the entire trial, we did not see that Masih wanted to incite his friends over religious differences. If that were the case, then he should have sent these messages to all his friends. So there remains a need to check what really made this happen.”

Anjum also accused the police of failing to properly investigate whether the messages were indeed sent by Nadeem Masih, or whether someone else could have sent them from his phone.

Masih was known to have been having a relationship with a woman, Nargis Bibi, who had converted to Christianity six months before the accusations were lodged, and Anjum says the police failed to properly investigate whether she could have sent the messages.

“No-one has seen Masih sending messages; hence, it is only hearsay, which is not admissible evidence against Masih,” he said. “… It is quite possible that Nargis would have sent those messages, as she was in an illicit relation with him and was always close to him. However, the court could not find any proof of this and rejected the claim.”

Masih’s family had asked whether Nargis Bibi would be willing to appear as a witness in court, but she refused.

Another factor in the case was the relationship between Nadeem Masih, his friend, Yasir Bashir, and the other complainant, Muhammad Akram. Local sources told World Watch Monitor, on the condition of anonymity, that the three had been running a small business together, selling alcohol (the sale and purchase of which is only allowed for non-Muslims in Pakistan, and only once they have obtained a special permit).

During the trial, Bashir witnessed before the court that he had had a close relationship with Masih for several years and that they had never before had any problems.

Local sources told World Watch Monitor that a few days before the case was filed, the three friends had started doing business separately and developed a rivalry. They said Masih had even tried to lodge a police complaint of his own against his friend, Yasir Bashir, accusing him of illegally selling alcohol.

Initial arrest

Nadeem Masih was initially accused on 10 July 2016, after which his family fled their homes for fear of repercussions, as local Muslims clamoured for his arrest.

“The situation remained tense even afterwards, so the police administration decided to conduct the entire trial in the prison,” Anjum told World Watch Monitor.

After his arrest, one of Masih’s brothers, Faryad, expressed disbelief that a family friend had lodged an accusation against his brother.

“Yasir has been our friend for more than 15 years,” he said. “He worked as a painter with my [other] brother, Shahbaz.”

Masih’s arrest came during a spike in blasphemy cases against Christians. In May 2016, a young Pakistani Christian woman was accused of blasphemy for allegedly using an advertising banner bearing the name of Prophet Muhammad as a floor covering. The accusation, which was later withdrawn, came just a few weeks after another Christian was accused of blasphemy in a village 100 kilometres away.

In June 2016, 10 Christian families fled their village after a man from a Christian community was accused of sending a blasphemous message on Facebook Messenger. Also in June 2016, a court jailed two Pakistani Christians (also from Gujrat) for six years for calling a Christian leader a “prophet”. And in the district of Gujranwala, 50 kilometres from Gujrat, an anti-terrorism court sentenced a school principal to death for blasphemy. The man had initially sought police protection, after alleging he was the victim of blackmail and extortion. Instead, he was charged with blasphemy by the police, after the men he had accused levelled charges against him.

Blasphemy in Pakistan

More than 30 years have passed since Pakistan’s President, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq – during military rule in 1986 – decided that the death penalty was the appropriate punishment for blasphemy against Sunni Islam. This blasphemy law was empowered by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1991.

Today, Pakistan remains the world’s most determined anti-blasphemy state. Christians make up only about 4 per cent of the country’s overwhelmingly Muslim population, but about half of blasphemy charges are against Christians. The cases of two Christian females, Aasiya Noreen (better known as Asia Bibi), who is still on death row, and teenager Rimsha Masih, on whom evidence was planted by an imam, both hit the world headlines.

Dr Mario Silva, a former member of the Canadian Parliament and Executive Director of the International Forum for Rights and Security (IFFRAS), spoke yesterday at the UN Office in Geneva on the issue.

“Since 1987 to 2017, 222 cases under the blasphemy law have been registered against Christians,” he said. “We have to call the governments in Europe, the United States and Canada to ask what they are doing by maintaining a relationship with Pakistan. Why are you not speaking up with authorities regarding minority rights particularly with the persecution of Christians in that country? The countries must speak up against it… The [Pakistan] authorities do nothing about it and the Government has refused to change the law.”

You can read more about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws here.