Death penalty, angry mob await Pakistani Christian accused of blasphemy

A young Christian man remains behind bars in Pakistan weeks after he was arrested for allegedly burning pages of the Koran outside a Muslim shrine, but jail may be the safest place for him - at least for now.

Asif Massih, 18 was arrested Aug. 12 on blasphemy charges stemming from an incident in Jam Kayk Chattha village Wazirabad, a central town of the Punjab province.

“He is on judicial remand on the order of the judge,” Alipur Chattha police spokesman Malik Irfan told Fox News. “People had witnessed that Massih had burnt the Holy Koran by pouring petrol on it outside Muslim shrine.”

After Massih was arrested, an angry crowd of around 200 men gathered outside the police station and demanded that he be handed over, Irfan said. Police moved him to another police station to save him from angry mob, Irfan added.

Massih is charged under 295-B of Pakistan’s penal code, the murky part of the Pakistan’s constitution that can lead to a death sentence for anyone convicted of desecrating the Koran.

Blasphemy is highly sensitive issue in predominantly Muslim majority Pakistan, where dozens sit on death row for allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad or mistreating the Koran. Even mere accusations are enough for huge uproar that can ultimately lead to mob lynching and riots.

A court is recommending that parliament review Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law and make changes that will prevent people from being falsely accused of the crime. Islamabad's highest court recently recommended parliament amend the law to require the same punishment - the death penalty - for those who falsely allege blasphemy.

“Pakistan top court’s ruling for falsely using these laws is welcome initiative and at least it can bring some debate about reviewing these draconian laws,” said Farzana Bari, an Islamabad-based human rights activist.

In recent months, several violent blasphemy allegations have alarmed the human rights groups across the country. Critics believe blasphemy allegations are often used to settle personal and political scores.

“The blasphemy accused persons in Pakistan are not properly investigated and innocents are being victimized on false accusations,” said Kapil Dev, another Islamabad-based human rights activist.

According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, around 40 people are on death row or serving life sentences in Pakistan for committing blasphemy.

“It is my hope that the new prime minister and his government will promote interfaith harmony and protect the rights of religious minorities,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said while releasing the annual US report on religious freedom for 2016.

Hardline mobs have killed at least 71 people over alleged blasphemy since 1990, according to reports.

In April, outspoken university student Mashal Khan was killed by a student mob after being falsely accused of blasphemy in the northern city of Mardan, which prompted huge calls for a change in the law. Police are currently probing more than 50 students and some faculty members at the school Khan attended in connection with his lynching following a dorm debate Islam.

Haroon Janjua is an award-winning Pakistan-based journalist who has reported on a wide range of political, military and economic developments.