New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - Christian and human rights campaigners welcomed a decision by Pakistan's Supreme Court to acquit a Christian sentenced to death for "blasphemy" but warned he could face new dangers once freed from jail.
The groups called for urgent steps to ensure Ayub Masih's safety, citing previous cases where Christians accused of vilifying Islam have been murdered by Muslim zealots.
Stuart Windsor of the British-based organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) welcomed the court ruling.
"We hope this latest decision will set a precedent for all future blasphemy cases and bring a ray of hope to all those still imprisoned under this legislation," he said.
Amnesty International used the opportunity to press home calls for Pakistan to repeal the notorious blasphemy law, which activists say is frequently misused by those with personal grudges against non-Muslims in the community.
The rights group also called on the authorities to take ensure Masih is not harmed upon his release.
Masih was arrested in 1996 and sentenced to death in April 1998, after being accused of speaking favorably about author Salman Rushdie during an argument with a Muslim neighbor. Rushdie's controversial book, The Satanic Verses, was denounced by Muslims as blasphemous and the British author was threatened with death.
A High Court in the city of Lahore upheld the conviction in July 2001, prompting him to take his case to the Supreme Court.
Throughout the hearing, Islamic extremists packed the courtroom. Some threatened to kill Ayub, his lawyers and the judge if he was not hanged.
At least five Pakistanis previously accused of blasphemy have been killed and others have had close escapes.
Even those accused but later acquitted were targeted by militants, and in 1997, a trial judge was killed after acquitting two Christians accused of blasphemy.
In its brief ruling, the three Supreme Court judges said they would give reasons for their decision later.
"It's a victory for justice," said Peter Jacob, executive secretary of Pakistan's church-run National Commission for Justice and Peace. "It restores our confidence in the judicial system here."
The U.S. has long been urging Pakistan to amend the 1986 blasphemy laws, which provide for heavy penalties for those convicted of defiling the Koran or blaspheming Islam's founder, Mohammed.
President Pervez Musharraf is under strong domestic pressure, however, not to tamper with the law.
New Delhi-based regional analyst Rajeev Sharma recalled Monday that soon after the coup that brought him to power, Musharraf had proposed amending the law to require magistrates, rather than local police, to investigate allegations of blasphemy.
Fundamentalist groups protested so strongly the military ruler left the legislation unchanged, he said.
According to CSW estimates, as of 2001, at least 10 Christians and two Hindus had been charged under the blasphemy law, along with 40 Muslims and 23 Ahmadis, followers of a Muslim sect considered heretical by mainstream Islam.
The notorious section 295C of Pakistan's penal code says: "Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad ... shall be punished with death and shall also be liable to a fine."
Meanwhile, a Christian school in Pakistan attacked by suspected Islamic militants earlier this month is shutting down, the school's director said on Sunday.
Russell Morton said the Murree Christian School would close for "at least a year" and then be relocated elsewhere in southeast Asia.
The school is home to around 150 pupils aged between six and 18, from 20 countries, including the U.S. Australia, New Zealand, Korea, the Philippines and European nations.
Six Pakistanis were killed in the Aug. 5 attack.
See earlier story:
Pakistan's Blasphemy Laws Continue To Target Christians (May 13, 2002)
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