The blasphemy case against two Christians sentenced to death by a Lahore court appeared close to collapse on appeal last night as a senior Pakistani lawyer joined human rights organisations in calls for their acquittal.
A former law minister, SM Zafer, speaking as an official "friend of the court", said there was no strong evidence against Salamat Masih, 14, and his uncle, Rehmat Masih, 40. "An acquittal would not be a win for the defence nor a defeat for the prosecution, but a triumph for Islamic jurisprudence," he said, addressing the appeal court.
Amnesty International in London said the case demonstrated the inherent dangers in Pakistan's sharia blasphemy laws, and the potential they afforded for malicious vendettas. against religious minorities.
The highly charged atmosphere outside the courthouse abated a little after the principal complainant, a Muslim cleric, withdrew his charges on Monday, claiming he had received death threats.
The two defendants were accused in May 1993 of throwing blasphemous slogans written on pieces of paper into a mosque in Punjab province. According to Amnesty, the charge followed a village dispute over pet pigeons.
A boy subsequently told village elders he had seen Salamat Masih, then 12, writing blasphemous graffiti on the wall of a mosque. The writing was immediately removed, and none of the Muslim witnesses called by the prosecution was prepared to repeat the alleged blasphemies in court. The defence maintains the accused boy was illiterate.
A third Christian defendant, Mansoor Masih, was shot dead as he left court in April 1994. One of the men charged with his murder is also one of his accusers. On 9 February the surviving defendants, who were also injured in the attack, were convicted and sentenced to the mandatory death sentence. This week 75 ritish barristers submitted a letter of protest to the Pakistani High Commissioner in London. The case is an embarrassment to Prime Minister enazir hutto, who has promised to amend the blasphemy codes.