Originally published in Catholic Herald
A court in Pakistan has sentenced a Christian to death after he received cartoons of Mohammad, the founder of Islam, in a WhatsApp chat message to his phone.
Nouman Asghar, 24, of Bahawalpur in Punjab, was convicted of blasphemy under 295-c of the country’s Penal Code, which carries the death penalty.
According to Fides news agency, he and his family argued that the drawings of Mohammad were sent to him by Bilal Ahmad, a young Muslim whom the police did not arrest.
The same drawings were also sent via WhatsApp, a social media platform, to Sunny Mushtaq, the Christian cousin of Ashghar, who is awaiting sentencing for blasphemy from the same Bahawalpur Magistrates Court.
Trainee Sub-Inspector Fraz Ahmed of the Faqirwali Police Station in Bahawalnagar said the pair were arrested in July 2019 after he received “secret information” that Mushtaq had printed the sketches and was showing them to other people.
Aneeqa Maria Anthony, a lawyer from The Voice legal group which is supporting the pair, said he was disappointed by the sentencing of Asghar.
He said: “The magistrate ignored all the procedures and dismissed all the evidence in favour of the accused.
“He only wanted to complete his ‘sacred duty’ to punish an alleged blasphemer,” he told Fides news agency.
“We expect the same fate for Sunny Mushtaq. They were arrested for a teenage game. Their families are suffering greatly.
“Our legal team at The Voice is doing everything necessary to grant them justice, helping their families and standing by their side in these dark and difficult times.”
Mr Anthony described the prosecution of the two men as “another example of the misuse of blasphemy laws” under which scores of Christians have been prosecuted, often following fabricated allegations.
Among the most notorious cases is that of Asia Bibi, a Catholic mother who spent nearly a decade on death row after she was sentenced to hang for allegedly insulting Muhammad following a dispute with Muslim co-workers whom, she maintains, objected to her sharing their water supply because she was a Christian. She has always denied the blasphemy allegation.
Islamic extremists were so vocal in demanding her execution that for her own safety she was held in solitary confinement from November 2010 until her release on appeal in 2019.
Lazar Allah Rakha, a member of Asghar’s legal team, said that his client was also the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
“I’m extremely disappointed by the conviction because there was absolutely no case,” Rakha told Morning Star News.
“There was no proof against Nouman, and none of the witnesses produced by police could corroborate the blasphemy allegation against him.”
He said that because there were “so many contradictions in the case” he was “at a loss to understand why Bahawalpur Additional Sessions Judge Muhammad Hafeez Ur Rehman sentenced Nouman instead of acquitting him”.
“This is murder of justice,” he said, adding that he his client would appeal against conviction to the Lahore High Court soon after the magistrates had explained their ruling in writing.
Asghar Masih, Nouman’s father said his family, who are Anglicans, were “standing firm in our faith and looking to God for Noman’s freedom”.
“The allegations in both First Information Reports are baseless,” said Asghar Masi, a sanitation worker.
“Nouman was sleeping in the house when he was arrested, but the police have alleged that he was in a park showing blasphemous images to 9 to10 people at 3.30am.”
“Nouman’s mother and I yearn for him every day. Our hearts broke today when our counsel informed us about the death verdict. But our faith in Christ has not waivered, and we trust God that He will rescue us from this suffering.”
Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2023 list of the world’s most dangerous places to be a Christian, up from eighth the previous year.
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