Pakistani Christians Accused of Blasphemy Await Appeal Hearing

Accuser´s Lawyers Demand Death Penalty

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LAHORE, Pakistan, JUNE 9, 2002 ( Two years after they were handed life sentences following a quarrel over ice cream bowls, Rasheed and Saleem Masih are hopeful their appeal will finally be heard before the Lahore High Court.

The Pakistani Christians´ appeal has been adjourned for the past six months due to the overload in Pakistan´s court dockets as well as a perceived reluctance to process the increasing number of volatile religious-blasphemy cases, Compass Direct agency reported.

The two men wait in the Sialkot Central Jail, six miles from Pakistan´s tense northern border with Kashmir. Many of their cellmates are members of extremist Muslim groups jailed for violent crimes. Rasheed, 35, has five children and Saleem, 31, has three.

Jailed since June 1999, the two Pakistani Christian brothers were ruled guilty of blasphemy against Islam and its prophet Mohammed during a fight with a Muslim ice cream vendor. Although such a verdict under Pakistan´s harsh blasphemy laws requires the death penalty, they were instead given 35-year prison terms.

The surprise conviction was handed down in the context of threats by local Muslim extremists aimed at both the defense lawyers and the Pasrur Sessions Court judge hearing the case.

A number of discrepancies between the testimony of Muslim complainant Maqsood Ahmed and prosecution witnesses will be argued during the appeal Tuesday, the defense counsel for the Masih brothers told Compass.

Notably, Ahmed´s original complaint filed with the police only reported a fistfight, with no mention of «blasphemous remarks.» Then six days later a First Information Report was filed that accused the two Christians of slandering Mohammed.

Meanwhile, lawyers of the complainant submitted a petition to Lahore High Court Justice M.A. Shaheed Siddiqui on May 21 asking the court to «enhance» the life sentence verdict against the Masih brothers by giving them the death penalty.

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