LAHOREPakistan, March 19, 2021 (Morning Star News) – Ruling in favor of an Islamist legal group’s petition, the Lahore High Court on March 10 changed a sentence of life imprisonment to the death penalty for a Christian convicted of sending a blasphemous text message in 2011.

The high court’s approval of an appeal for the criminal code revision filed by the Khatam-e-Nabuwwat Forum (KNF, or Movement for the Finality of the Prophethood) seeking the death penalty for such violations has raised fears of a surge in convictions under the controversial laws, sources said.

Relatives of Sajjad Masih, the convicted 36-year-old Christian, said Justice Malik Shahzad Ahmad Khan ruled in favor of the revised sentence and then sent Masih’s appeal to a division bench.

“Justice Shahzad has forwarded the appeal to a division bench to avoid pressure from KNF lawyers, and it’s most likely that this appeal, like other similar appeals, will continue to be delayed due to the fear factor,” one source said.

Masih’s appeal of the conviction has been pending with the Lahore High Court for the last seven years.

A trial court sentenced Masih, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Gojra town, Punjab Province, to life imprisonment in July 2013 for sending a controversial text message to a Muslim in December 2011, though there were several gaps in the prosecution’s case, according to his lawyer. Masih was also ordered to pay a fine of 314,500 rupees (US$2,010).

A large number of KNF lawyers swarmed the courtroom during a hearing on both Masih’s appeal and the KNF petition, an intimidation tactic designed to obtain convictions and harsh sentences, according to sources speaking on the condition of anonymity due to security fears.

“They told the judge that capital punishment was the only sentence for blaspheming against Islam’s prophet, and that Sajjad must be executed without delay,” said one source.