On September 13, Sunday, members of the National Christian Party in Pakistan staged a one-day hunger strike in support of a Christian garment factory worker, Asif Pervaiz, who was recently sentenced to death in a blasphemy case. According to the Christian minority group, the controversial use of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws against individuals on political grounds is driving members of minority communities to leave the country.
37-year-old Pervaiz was charged after allegations of sending provocative “blasphemous messages” were leveled against him by his former work supervisor. On September 8, a court in Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore pronounced the death sentence.
Denouncing the judgement, Pervaiz’s lawyer Saif-ul-Malook claimed that there was no forensic investigation to establish if his phone was used to send the blasphemous messages. Pervaiz was initially given a three-year sentence for misusing his phone to send these messages, but later the Lahore court ruled that “he shall be hanged by his neck till his death.”
Shabbir Shafqat, the president of the National Christian Party, while condemning the death sentence pointed out that most blasphemy cases in the country were baseless and driven by false accusations. “I’m very afraid for the future of minorities in Pakistan,” he said.
Following the verdict, the United Nations Commission for Human Rights called on the Imran Khan led-government “to take measures to avoid the manipulation of the blasphemy law.”
According to the National Christian Party, 25 individuals who have been arrested on similar blasphemy charges continue to remain incarcerated in different jails in Pakistan. “The result of undue pressure on the justice system leads to discriminatory sentences,” the group said.
Several international human rights groups, including the United Nations and the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, have raised concerns regarding the persecution of journalists, human rights defenders and minorities in Pakistan. “Especially worrying are accusations of blasphemy, which can put accused individuals at imminent risk of violence,” said UN human rights spokesperson, Rupert Colville.
Since 1990, more than 70 people have been killed in Pakistan in cases related to blasphemy. 17 people convicted of blasphemy remain on death row in the country.
In July, a member of the minority Ahmaddiya community, Tahir Ahmed Naseem (an American citizen), who was accused of committing blasphemy was killed by a teenager while standing trial in a crowded courtroom in Pakistan’s Peshawar.
In April 2017, a student of Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, 23-year-old Mashal Khan, was killed by a mob inside the university premises over accusations of a blasphemous post on social media.
This January, 33-year-old professor Junaid Hafeez, who has been languishing in jail in a blasphemy case for the past seven years, was given the death sentence. The assistant professor at Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan was arrested in 2013 for making derogatory and blasphemous posts on social media. Following his death sentence, several human rights organizations termed the harsh verdict against the Fulbright scholar “a travesty of justice”.