Facing Up to Fundamentalists : Pakistan court bravely acquits two who faced death in blasphemy case

A two-judge appeals court in Pakistan has shown fidelity to the law and admirable courage in acquitting two Christians who faced a mandatory death sentence for allegedly writing blasphemous comments about Islam. This was an honorable ending to a highly irregular prosecution.

Pakistan is officially an Islamic republic and its criminal code is required to conform to Islamic law. Two years ago three members of the country's small Christian minority, one of them a 12-year-old boy, were convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to die. One of the three was assassinated and the other two were wounded as they left the courtroom. The attacks were indicative of the tensions the allegations raised.

No physical evidence was produced to link the accused to the alleged crime. The insulting words that had supposedly been written on the wall of a mosque in Lahore were said to have been immediately erased and so could not be viewed. People who claimed to be witnesses to the crime refused to repeat the blasphemous words in court, saying to do so would itself be blasphemous. Convictions nonetheless followed, with the trial judge remarkably ruling that allegations so serious had to be true.

The convictions drew international protests. In our own area, the Islamic Center of Southern California, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and others wrote a joint letter to Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto saying that "it will be a shameful tragedy if the blood of a teen-ager is shed in a false claim to defend Islam." They called on Pakistan's Muslim scholars to critically examine the validity of the blasphemy law.

Pakistani Christians and other minorities worry increasingly about Muslim fundamentalists spreading religious bigotry. Yet the political reality is that the fundamentalists seem to have only the most limited support. In the 1993 elections, the fundamentalist parties drew less than 5% of the national vote. This low level of appeal has not, however, curbed their zealotry. The death threats made by extremists against the judges, lawyers and freed defendants in the blasphemy case have to be taken seriously.

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