Journalist sentenced to life for blasphemy

Times Online (England)
From Zahid Hussain in Islamabad

A Pakastani journalist was sentenced to life imprisonment yesterday for publishing an article that was considered blasphemous.

Munawar Mohsin, a subeditor at Frontier Post, an English-language newspaper, was arrested two years ago after the article in the letters page, which allegedly attacked the Prophet Muhammad, sparked violent protests.

Convicting Mohsin, 40, the judge at the court in Peshawar said that the journalist had been responsible for selecting the letter. In addition to his jail term, he was fined £550.

The Post’s news editor and the person in charge of the computer department have also been in detention since the incident, but both were acquitted. Mahmood Shah Afridi, the managing editor, is in hiding.

Hundreds of people, mostly Christians, have been convicted in Pakistan under tough blasphemy laws, but this is the first time that a journalist has been found guilty.

The court’s ruling said: “The accused was responsible for selection of the letter in question and subsequently he sent the same for the purpose of printing.”

The letter, which the Government said was objectionable and hurt the feelings of Muslims, was published on January 29, 2001. It was written by someone using the name Ben DZec and appeared in the Your Views column of the newspaper.

The letter, apparently sent by e-mail, was headed: “Why Muslims Hate Jews.” The author’s remarks about the Prophet were seen as derogatory and provoked a violent reaction. An angry mob, mostly students from Islamic seminaries in Peshawar, attacked the offices of the newspaper, set the printing press on fire and damaged other public property, including a cinema. Publication of the newspaper was suspended for several months.

The defence lawyers said that Mohsin was a drug addict and was mentally unfit. Doctors who examined him said that he should not have been given responsibility for supervising the editorial pages. But the judge refused to accept the plea. His ruling said that the accused had intentionally and wilfully committed the offence. Mohsin has seven days to appeal to the provincial High Court.

Blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan, but no one convicted of the offence has been executed. Nevertheless, scores of people who have been awarded death sentences by lower courts, including a Muslim medical college professor, are languishing in prisons waiting for the higher courts to decide their appeals.

Human rights groups have been demanding a change in the law to prevent its misuse. At present, if an individual goes to the police and simply accuses someone of blasphemy, officers have to make an arrest before any investigation. President Musharraf had promised to change the way in which the law was enforced, but he backed down after protests by radical Islamic groups.

North West Frontier Province, of which Peshawar is the capital, is ruled by an alliance of six radical Islamic parties, which are locked in confrontation with the President. The enforcement of Sharia, Islamic law, in the province has increased tensions.

General Musharraf is said to be considering significant changes in the country’s political structure as he confronts the challenge from radical Islamic groups and religious extremists trying to destabilise his rule. The likelihood of action intensified after suspected Islamic militants bombed a Shia mosque in the southwestern city of Quetta, killing 53 worshippers.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday July 10, 2003.
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