Two Christian brothers jailed for a year on blasphemy charges were given 35-year prison sentences last week by a lower court in Pakistan's populous Punjab province. Rasheed and Saleem Masih from the Sabu Mohaal village near Pasrur received verdicts May 11 for alleged blasphemy against Islam and its prophet. Both men are married. Rasheed, 33, has five children and Saleem, 29, has three.The verdict was handed down by Pasrur Additional Sessions Court Judge Rana Mohammed Yousaf a week after he heard final arguments on the case May 5. Despite mob-incited pressures on the judiciary, the defense told Compass they had expected an acquittal of the two Christians.The alleged blasphemies reportedly took place after ice cream vendor Maqsood Ahmed refused to serve the two Christians ice cream in the same bowls used by Muslims. The vendor later filed a complaint with the police over the incident, claiming that the angry brothers had made "bad remarks" against Islam and Mohammed.Declaring the guilty ruling "very strange," the defendants' lawyers filed an appeal before the Lahore High Court on May 17. According to the main counsel for the defense, Pervaiz Aslam Chaudhry, the appeal questioned both the lower court's jurisdiction to try the case, as well as the "clear contradictions" in testimony given by prosecution witnesses.In the 16-page judgment, the Masih brothers were sentenced under two separate statutes of Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws, Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) 295-C and 295-A. Jailed on June 2 last year, the two men had initially been charged only with violating PPC 295-C, which carries a mandatory death sentence if found guilty of insulting the prophet Mohammed. Inexplicably, however, the judge sentenced both men under this statute to 25 years imprisonment and a 50,000 Rs ($925) fine.In addition, Judge Yousaf ordered the Christians jailed for another 10 years each under PPC 295-A for "insulting Islam," fining both an additional 25,000 Rs ($460)."Offenses under 295-A absolutely must be tried by the Anti-Terrorist Courts," protested defense counsel Chaudhry. "An ordinary court has no jurisdiction to try or sentence (anyone) on this offense."In addition to the ice cream vendor accuser, the prosecution produced another two "eyewitnesses" and the investigating police officer to testify in court. "All the evidence made by the prosecution witnesses (had) clear contradictions among their statements," the defense counsel commented. "And finally, the police officer also (did) not corroborate all these statements."Nevertheless, Chaudhry noted that in the final verdict, the judge did not mention "even a single word" of the defense arguments, submitted to the court in writing as well as verbally.Observers at the concluding May 5 trial taped an appeal broadcast from a nearby mosque after Friday prayers that day, urging faithful Muslims to gather at the courthouse where a blasphemy trial was in progress. Led by Muslim prayer leaders, the mob that formed outside the courtroom was "demanding the court to award the death sentence to both victims," an observer told Compass.Due to tight security ordered from Islamabad by federal authorities, open threats against the accused and their lawyers at this hearing were foiled, the observers said.In Pakistan, the only news released on the verdict the following day appeared in Khabrain, an Urdu-language newspaper with a small circulation.The Masih brothers have been imprisoned in the Sialkot Central Jail without bail for the past year. According to their father, Nazih Masih, extremists attacked the family home in Sabu Mahaal the night the verdict was announced and fired shots in the air around the house.Pakistan's current military leader had announced a procedural change for registering blasphemy cases last month, declaring his government wanted to avoid "misuse" of the vague statutes. However, Gen. Pervez Musharraf abruptly retracted his new policy on May 16, in the wake of protest rallies and Friday processions led by Muslim clerics openly condemning the general's amendment."The decision can only be seen as a body-blow to the credibility of the military-led government," commented an editorial in the May 18 edition of The News, published by the Jang newspaper group. "It boggles the mind that a military regime, free of any political restraints, committed to reform and validated by the Supreme Court on this count, should not be its own master."Copyright © Compass Direct.

Related Elsewhere

We noted the decision of Pakistan's military leader not to change the country's blasphemy laws in a Weblog item last week. Other recent articles on Pakistan include " Blasphemy Case Registered Against Young Pakistani Husband | First test of military government's new judicial curb" (May 11, 2000) and " Churches Welcome Pakistan Promise to Ease Restrictions on Minority Faiths | October coup turns out to be beneficial to Christians as blasphemy laws are overhauled."