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Pakistani Christian gets life sentence for 'blasphemous' text messages

(Reuters/Fayaz Aziz)Pakistan's Christian community protest against satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo, which featured a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad as the cover of its first edition since an attack by Islamist gunmen, in Peshawar January 18, 2015.

A Pakistani Christian man received a life sentence on Wednesday for allegedly sending text messages that were deemed blasphemous from his mobile phone.

A court in the city of Rawalpindi in the Punjab province handed down a life sentence to Zafar Bhatti for the "blasphemous" text messages. However, the SIM purportedly used to send the messages was not under his name, Christians in Pakistan reported.

CLAAS, a U.K.-based advocacy group that has been providing legal aid to Bhatti, said that it will challenge the court ruling. The group has contended that the court overlooked the lack of evidence against Bhatti, who has been in Adiala Central Jail since the accusation was made against him in 2012.

"The lower court's judges always hesitate to make decisions on the merit, or free people accused of blasphemy, and instead transfer their burden to the higher court without realizing how their decision will impact the accused and their families' lives," Nasir Saeed, director of CLAAS-UK, said in a statement.

"Bhatti is innocent and will be freed by the higher court. But it will take several years for his case to be heard by the High court, and until then he and his family will continue suffering needlessly," he added.

CLAAS has been trying to transfer the case to Lahore because there had been threats to Bhatti's life as well as to his defense attorney.

In 2012, the lawyers' bar passed a resolution that no attorney would defend the accused in court, but the legal team of CLAAS took up the responsibility to represent him in his legal battle.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws carry the death penalty, but there is no provision to punish a false accuser or a false witness. Christian groups working in Pakistan have asserted that blasphemy allegations often stem from the accuser's desire to settle petty, personal disputes.

According to the Center for Research and Security Studies in Pakistan, at least 65 people have been killed over accusations of blasphemy since 1990, and dozens more who are convicted of the crime are on death row.

In 2010, Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, was sentenced to death after a group of Muslim women in the town of Sheikhupura in Punjab province accused her of blasphemy. She is waiting for the appeal proceedings to begin, but her trial was delayed after Pakistan's Supreme Court rejected a request for her case to be heard in early June.

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