The High Court in Lahore, Pakistan on March 10 changed a convicted Christian's sentence of life imprisonment to the death penalty for allegedly sending a blasphemous text message 10 years ago.
Morning Star News (MSN) reports the Christian's sentence was revised following an appeal for a criminal code revision filed by the Khatam-e-Nabuwwat Forum (KNF) lawyers who were seeking the death penalty under the Muslim country's controversial sharia laws.
Founded 20 years ago, the KNF is a well-known Islamist legal group in Pakistan. Due to their targeting, the number of blasphemy cases filed against Christians and other minorities in the Punjab Province has increased.
Family members of Sajjad Masih, the convicted 36-year-old Christian, said Justice Malik Shahzad Ahmad Khan ruled in favor of the revised sentence and then sent Masih's appeal to the next level.
Masih's appeal of his 2013 conviction has been pending with Lahore's High Court for the last seven years.
"Justice Shahzad has forwarded the appeal to a division bench to avoid pressure from KNF lawyers, and it's most likely that this appeal, like other similar appeals, will continue to be delayed due to the fear factor," one source told MSN.
Masih, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Gojra town located in the Punjab Province, was fined $2,000 and sentenced to life imprisonment in July 2013 for allegedly sending a controversial text message to a Muslim in December 2011. According to Masih's attorney, there were several holes in the prosecution's case.
A large number of KNF lawyers appeared in the courtroom during a hearing on both Masih's appeal and the KNF petition. The tactic was designed to intimidate the judge hearing the case.
The lawyers told the judge "capital punishment was the only sentence for blaspheming against Islam's prophet," according to witnesses and Masih, "must be executed without delay."
Saif Ul Malook, a Muslim lawyer who has won freedom for Pakistan's most high-profile blasphemy convict, Aasiya Noreen (better known as Asia Bibi), represents other Christians on death row.
Few Muslim lawyers are willing to put their life at risk by defending a person accused of blasphemy, particularly if they belong to a minority community, Malook told Morning Star.
Last December, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released a report titled Violating Rights: Enforcing the World's Blasphemy Laws. The report examines the enforcement of blasphemy laws worldwide over a four-year period. Those laws criminalize expressions that insult or offend religious doctrines, according to the USCIRF.
The U.S. State Department on Dec. 7, 2020, re-designated Pakistan among nine other "Countries of Particular Concern" for severe violations of religious freedom. Previously Pakistan had been added to the list on Nov. 28, 2018.
Pakistan ranked fifth on the Open Doors 2021 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.