Blasphemy cases renew Bhutto threat

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Two weeks after the acquittal of a 14-year-old Christian boy, more than 40 defendants face the death sentence for alleged blasphemies in Pakistan. And despite pressure on the Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, to amend the country's controversial sharia laws, a conference of right-wing and Islamic groups is to meet today in Lahore to campaign in favour of them.

Amid an atmosphere of mounting sectarian violence, a Shia leader was gunned down in Lahore yesterday by terrorists believed to be supporters of a rival Sunni group.

A further adjournment was yesterday granted in the case of Anwar Masih, 26, a Christian from Sammundri in the Punjab province, who has been held without bail for more than two years. He was arrested in February 1993 on charges of having "argued loudly, abusing Muslims and blaspheming". Islamic militants have called for his public execution and have threatened to burn down Christian areas in Sammundri.

According to Amnesty International, Mr Masih, who has twice converted to Islam and then returned to Christianity, is mentally unstable. The complaint against him was made by local mullah after an argument between Mr Masih and a shopkeeper. Critics maintain that the formulation of the laws, which can only be made by Muslims, leaves minority groups vulnerable to vendettas. The case against Salamat Masih, an illiterate 14-year- old, accused along with his uncle of writing blasphemous slogans, was thrown out by a Lahore court last month on similar grounds.

The international attention drawn by the case proved an embarrassment to the government of Ms Bhutto, which opposes the laws but has remained consistently shy of repealing them. Executive guidance, intended to eliminate unfounded charges, has been issued to local magistrates. But human rights lawyers claim that it has had little effect.

Christians form only a small proportion of those held under the blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the former president, Zia-ul-Haq, and later incorporated into Pakistan's constitution.

Most of the accused are Ahmadis, a modern Islamic movement regarded as schismatic by traditional Muslims. In 1984 it became an offence, punishable by three years in prison, for an Ahmadi to declare himself a Muslim or use Muslim greetings. Last year 2,432 Ahmadis were charged with these offences, and in six cases, they were upgraded to blasphemy, which carries a mandatory death sentence. "The climate of fanaticism is such that no one resists," said Aftab Ahmad Khan, a former diplomat and president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association UK. "Police officers are scared - even the judges are scared. The local power of the mullahs is impossible to resist."

The latest victim of Pakistan's growing unrest was Mohammad Ali Naqvi, a member of the supreme council of Tehrik-i-Jafria Pakistan (TJP), who was killed instantly by bullets as he drove to work yesterday.

After the attack, TJP supporters staged angry protests on the central Multan Road, burning tyres, throwing stones, smashing car windows and shooting in the air. The TJP has been locked in a vendetta with the rival militant Sunni Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) organisation in which scores of people have been killed recently.

TJP leaders blamed the provincial government for failing to ensure security. "The Punjab government is responsible for this incident, as it has not taken steps to eliminate terrorist groups," said Sajid Raza, head of the TJP's Imamia Student Organisation.