South Asia

Life in jail for two Pakistani Muslim blasphemers

Pakistani Sunni Muslims shout slogans against Pope Benedict XVI during a protest in Lahore on 12 January 2011
Image caption Protesters reject the Pope's call for Pakistan's blasphemy law to be scrapped

A court in Pakistan has sentenced a Muslim prayer leader and his son to life in jail for blasphemy.

The pair were found guilty in Punjab province of tearing down a poster of a gathering to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. They deny blasphemy.

A Christian leader said this was the first time a jail term had been handed down under the blasphemy law, which carries a mandatory death sentence.

Christian woman Asia Bibi is on death row for allegedly insulting Islam.

The conviction of the Muslim father and son was Pakistan's first under its blasphemy law since last week's assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who had backed proposed reforms to the legislation.

'Poster trampled'

The sentence was handed down by an anti-terrorism court in the city of Dera Ghazi Khan in eastern Punjab province on Tuesday.

It followed an incident in the small town of Noor Shah Talai, in southern Punjab's Muzaffargarh district, in April 2010, defence lawyer Arif Gurmani told the BBC.

He said the convicted pair, Mohammad Shafi, 45, and his 20-year-old son, Mohammad Aslam, had been running a grocery shop in a small market. Mr Shafi is also a prayer leader at a nearby mosque.

The complainant, Phool Khan, alleged that the pair had ripped down and trampled a poster of a gathering to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. It had been posted on a pillar outside the grocery shop.

The lawyer said they would launch an appeal against the sentence on Thursday Lahore High Court, as he claimed the allegations had been motivated by sectarian differences.

He said his clients followed the Deobandi school, while the complainant was from the Barelvi sect - both are Sunni Muslim branches of Islam.

Experts say the Barelvi school, although considered moderate, promotes a cult following of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Deobandi school - better known because of its Taliban supporters - is viewed as emphasising the ritual and temporal aspects of religion.

Barelvis have been in the forefront of a recent campaign against reforms to the blasphemy law.

Critics say the blasphemy law has been used to persecute minority faiths in Pakistan and is exploited by people with personal grudges.

The law has been in the spotlight since the 4 January assassination of Governor Taseer by one of his own bodyguards.

Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri, who has confessed to the killing, said he was angered by Mr Taseer's backing for proposed reforms to the blasphemy law, and by his support for the condemned Christian woman Asia Bibi.

She was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad during an argument with other farmhands in a Punjab village in June 2009. She says she is innocent.

Pope Benedict XVI, who has led calls for her release, said this week the blasphemy law should be scrapped, provoking a backlash from protesters in the Punjab capital of Lahore on Wednesday.

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