LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — A court convicted a Pakistani Christian man and sentenced him to death Thursday in a blasphemy case that sparked a riot last year in the eastern city of Lahore, according to his lawyer.
Naeem Shakir, the lawyer for Sawan Masih, said a judge announced the verdict during a hearing at the jail where the trial has been held out of fears that Masih might be attacked on his way to court. Shakir said he would appeal.
Although Pakistan has never executed anybody under the law, crowds angered over blasphemy accusations have been known to take the law into their own hands and kill those they suspect of violating it. Once an accusation is made it is extremely difficult to reverse, in part because law enforcement personnel do not want to appear to be going easy on suspects.
Such vigilantism has created a climate of fear, forcing frightened judges into holding court sessions inside jails and keeping witnesses from coming to the defense of those on trial.
Many human rights activists say the blasphemy law, which allows for punishment of life in prison or death, is misused as a way to target people for personal gain or revenge.
The incident that led to Thursday's conviction began March 7 last year when a young Muslim man accused Masih of maligning the Prophet Muhammad. Police arrested Masih, but the next day a mob ransacked the neighborhood where he and other Christians live, setting fire to homes and destroying household possessions.
Fearing for their safety, hundreds of Christian families fled the area overnight ahead of the riots. Many in the neighborhood have since moved back, and their homes have been rebuilt.
The police arrested 83 suspects following the rampage, including the man who brought the complaint against Masih, said a Lahore police official, Rana Taseer Riaz. But so far none of the suspects have been convicted and all were released on bail, he said.
Amnesty International condemned Masih's conviction and sentencing. The organization said there were serious concerns about the fairness of his trial and called for his immediate release. The organization also called on Pakistan to bring to trial the people responsible for attacking the Christian homes.
"Failure to do so will effectively send the message that anyone can commit outrageous abuses and excuse them as defense of religious sentiments," said David Griffiths, Amnesty International's Deputy Asia Pacific Director.
Pakistan's blasphemy law has existed since even before the country's 1947 founding. During the 1980s, the U.S.-backed military dictator, Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, amended it to add the death penalty and single out Islam as the religion that may not be insulted, among other changes.
Associated Press writer Rebecca Santana in Islamabad contributed to this report.