Associated Press, Mar. 22, 2003
LAHORE, Pakistan – An appeals court has ordered the release of two Christians in eastern Pakistan who were sentenced to life in prison for allegedly insulting Islam’s Prophet Mohammed, a Christian activist said Saturday.
The Lahore High Court overturned a lower court’s conviction of the Christians, brothers Rasheed and Saleem Nazir, in a ruling Friday, said Joseph Francis, head of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement. The center represented the brothers in their appeal.
The Nazirs were convicted three years ago by a court in the town of Pasrur, about 90 miles southwest of Lahore. Police had charged them with blasphemy on the basis of a complaint by a Muslim ice cream vendor who had argued with them, according to Francis.
The appeals court ruled there was insufficient evidence for the conviction. Under Pakistani Islamic law, the word of a Muslim accuser is all that is needed to prosecute a non-Muslim on blasphemy charges, which can carry the death penalty.
The brothers, who are being held in a prison in Sahiwal, near Pasrur, will be freed after legal formalities are completed within a few days, Francis said.
Yousaf Ghauri, a deputy superintendent of the prison in Sahiwal, said he had not received the release orders but they usually take three to four days.
About 97 percent of Pakistan’s 145 million people are Muslim. Christians constitute a small portion of the remaining 3 percent, though Christian leaders insist that they are at least six percent of the total population.
Last year Amnesty International urged Pakistan to amend or abolish its blasphemy law.
“The law has frequently been abused to imprison people on grounds of religious enmity, but also has proved an easy tool to have people imprisoned when the real motives are business rivalry or land issues,” the human rights group said.