A Christian man has been sentenced to death for blasphemy by a Pakistani court after allegations that he insulted the Prophet Mohammed lead to rioting in a Christian neighbourhood of Lahore last year.
26-year-old Sawan Masih, who is father of three children, was convicted of uttering the insult during a conversation with a Muslim friend. A mob then burned two churches and dozens of Christian homes in the eastern Pakistani city.
The Times newspaper says that if this sentence is carried out, it will be the first execution under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
Masih maintains that he was falsely accused as part of a plot by Muslim businessmen to clear Christians from their Lahore neighbourhood and turn the area into a profitable industrial estate. He is expected to appeal against the ruling.
Pakistan has become infamous in recent years for mob violence and vigilantism in response to any perceived insult to Islam or the Prophet Mohammed.
Such is the stigma against anyone accused of blasphemy that the family of a Christian girl falsely accused of burning pages of the Koran was forced to leave the country, despite a Muslim cleric later being arrested for making the story up.
In 2011, the relatively liberal governor of Punjab was killed by his own body guard for suggesting the blasphemy law be repealed. A Christian politician who had also criticised the law was shot dead two months after.
Critics of the law say that it is often abused to settle personal disputes and that members of minority groups are especially vulnerable.
Pakistan is the only country where the punishment for blasphemy is death or life imprisonment.