Two Christian brothers have been sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan, weeks after Asia Bibi was acquitted of the same crime following international outcry.
Qaiser and Amoon Ayub from Lahore were sentenced to hang by a district judge after being convicted of insulting the Prophet Mohammed in articles and portraits posted on their website.
The brothers fled the country after they were first accused of the crime in 2011, but eventually returned home quietly. Amoon, 38, was then arrested at the airport trying to leave the country a second time and Qaiser, 44, was also held. The pair have been in Jhelum prison since 2014.
Both men were convicted last week of the “use of derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet”, under strict blasphemy punishments covered by Pakistan’s penal code.
“The prosecution has proved its case against both the accused beyond shadow of reasonable doubt,” Judge Javed Iqbl Bosal concluded in a 28-page ruling.
He went on: “Hence, both the convicts are to be sentenced to death.”
The conviction must be confirmed by the high court and both men can appeal.
Tahir Bashir, counsel for the two men, said they were alleged to have uploaded blasphemous content on the United Christians Organisation of Pakistan in August 2010. A complaint was only registered a year later, by a Muslim cleric from another district. Mr Bashir said while the men had started the website, they were not operating it at the time of the offence.
The sentence was handed down only two days after America put Pakistan on a religious freedom blacklist, and is expected to again draw attention to the country’s harsh blasphemy laws.
The death sentence of Asia Bibi, a Catholic farmhand accused of insulting the prophet in a quarrel with co-workers, caused international outcry in 2010. She spent eight years on death row until she was acquitted by the supreme court in October. She remains in protective custody until the ruling has been reviewed and she can leave the country to claim asylum.Pakistan has around two million Christians CREDIT: SAIYNA BASHIR FOR THE TELEGRAPH
Muhammad Saeed, who made the complaint that led to the brothers’ sentence told the Telegraph that “justice is done”.
Attempts to reform the country’s blasphemy laws have met with fury from religious hardliners and two senior politicians who attempted to speak out for Mrs Bibi were assassinated.
Asia Bibi was the first woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, but the charge is not uncommon in Pakistan and most accused are Muslims. Since 2011 about 100 blasphemy cases have been registered. Around 40 people are awaiting the death sentence or serving life sentences.
Many cases never get to court though. Since 1990 at least 62 people have been murdered by vigilantes as a result of blasphemy allegations, before any trial could take place.
Nasir Saeed, director of the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement charity supporting the brothers, said: “This is a very unfortunate situation as because of threats from hardliners lower courts pass their responsibility to the higher court and then it takes years to prove the accused innocent.”