Sawan Masih: Pakistani Christian gets death penalty for blasphemy

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A rioter burns a cross in Lahore, 9 MarchImage source, Reuters
Image caption,
Christian families had already fled when the rioters struck

A Pakistani Christian man has been sentenced to death for blasphemy, in a case which sparked fierce rioting in the eastern city of Lahore last March.

Sawan Masih was convicted of using derogatory remarks against the Prophet Mohammed in a row with a Muslim friend.

Hundreds of Muslims attacked the city's Christian Joseph colony, torching homes, when the allegations surfaced.

Allegations of blasphemy against Islam are taken very seriously in Pakistan, where 97% of the population are Muslim.

Several recent cases have prompted international concern about the application of blasphemy laws.

Sawan Masih's lawyer said a judge announced the verdict during a hearing at the jail where the trial has been held, amid fears for his client's safety if he attended court.

The 26-year-old Masih, who is a father of three, has consistently maintained his innocence during the year-long trial.

He argues the real reason for the blasphemy allegation was a property dispute between him and his friend.

His father, Chapman Masih, said: "My son is innocent... we are not being treated fairly", the BBC's Shumaila Jaffrey in Lahore reports.

The rioting that followed the incident lasted days and saw about 3,000 Muslims attack the Christian neighbourhood, starting fires. Two churches and dozens of Bibles were also desecrated in the attack

A de facto moratorium on the death penalty means that he is unlikely to face the gallows any time soon.

Since the 1990s, scores of Christians have been convicted for desecrating the Koran or blaspheming against the Prophet Mohammed.

While most of them have been sentenced to death by the lower courts, many sentences have been overturned due to lack of evidence. Sawan Masih now has 30 days to appeal

Critics argue that Pakistan's blasphemy laws are frequently misused to settle personal scores and that members of minority groups are also unfairly targeted.

Muslims constitute a majority of those prosecuted, followed by the minority Ahmadi community.

In 2012 the arrest of a young Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, on blasphemy charges provoked international outrage. After being detained in a high security prison for several weeks she was eventually released and her family subsequently fled to Canada.

More recently the conviction for blasphemy of Muhammad Asghar, an elderly British man with a history of mental illness, prompted global concern.