Shahzad Masih, a Pakistani Christian, was 16 years old and working in a hospital as a janitor in 2017, when Muslims falsely accused him of blasphemy. Since then, has spent more than five years in prison, and has been sentenced to death by hanging for statements he did not even make.
In 2017, authorities arrested Masih after a Muslim coworker and another man linked with the Islamic terrorist group, Tehreek-e-Taliban Islami Pakistan (TTIP), accused him of insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad. In 2022, a court sentenced Masih to death.
According to Pakistan's blasphemy laws, those deemed to have insulted Islam or Islam's Prophet Muhammad can be subjected to the death penalty.
Masih's mother, during testimony at the United Nations, said that two men accused him of blaspheming against Islam's prophet Mohammed after unsuccessfully pressuring him into converting to Islam. Days later, they tried to force him to confess to blasphemy while recording his voice -- a demand he refused. They then forcibly took him to a madrassa (Islamic school), where the police arrested him.
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) announced that they have mobilized their legal team on the ground to represent Masih and appeal his case, stating:
"We must overturn this vile miscarriage of justice. This is the ultimate abominable human rights violation, and we'll take this case all the way to Pakistan's Supreme Court."
Masih's mother added that she was told by the prison authorities that, as all the other prisoners are Muslims, her son would not be safe while talking to her in their presence, so she visits him in an empty room.
"I only meet him for 20 minutes each time... He was a little child when they arrested him and he's still too young. He's imprisoned for nothing from the beginning... He is like a bird in a cage and it's like my son is locked in a cage."
CeCe Heil, Executive Senior Counsel at the ACLJ, said at a UN Human Rights Council event:
"[Shahzad] is completely innocent. He did not commit blasphemy. He was targeted by Ishtiak Jalali, a member of the fanatical group, TTIP [Tehreek-e-Taliban Islami Pakistan]. Yet Shahzad's childhood has been taken from him: he has been in prison since he was only 16. What you didn't hear from his parents is the complete disregard for facts, law or justice that occurred in the courtroom.
"Once Shahzad was handed over to the police, they started their investigation. The superintendent of police stated in his report that neither he nor the eyewitness found any blasphemy in Shahzad's conversation. His investigation also found that Shahzad was a minor, illiterate and did not have clear knowledge of any religion and only repeated words at the direction of Ishtiak Jalali.
"Based on this investigation the police literally said he was not guilty. He had not committed any blasphemy. One would think that no prosecutor would pursue this case any further and no judge would entertain trying it, but that's not the way false blasphemy charges play out in Pakistan. Because Shahzad is a Christian, not only did the prosecutor pursue the case, the judge erroneously tried Shahzad as an adult, completely ignoring the police investigation findings and Shahzad's government-issued birth certificate which is required by law to prevail.
"And why would a judge do this? Why would that be done? Because as a juvenile, Shahzad was entitled to be immediately released on bail and the judge obviously was not going to follow the law and release Shahzad. A much bigger plan seemed to be in place with the mob controlling the outcome.
"It's common knowledge that in Pakistan trial courts often convict those accused of blasphemy even when there is no evidence supporting the convictions. This happens because Muslim fanatics pack courtrooms to intimidate the judges.
"This is exactly what happened in Shahzad's case. TTIP [Tehreek-e-Taliban Islami Pakistan] members regularly attended the hearings, and the leader had the audacity to post a video threatening that if Shahzad was not convicted, they would kill Shahzad with their own hands. And on November 22nd, 2022, before the judge announced the decision that Shahzad was guilty and was sentenced to death by hanging, TTIP leaders were present in the courthouse. They did a photo shoot and they left as if they already knew the judge's ruling.
"So, no one who hears the facts of this case could possibly believe that the rule of law was followed or justice has been done. We have, of course, filed an appeal to the Lahore High Court, but it could take years before the appeal is heard.
"Surely, Pakistan cannot think it's adhering to its commitments to this body and other international agreements by completely ignoring not only the human rights of Shahzad but his rights under Pakistan's own laws.
"Pakistan must take immediate steps to right this wrong. This innocent, young, 16-year-old boy, who is now 22, has already lost his teenage years sitting in prison. He should not have to lose one more day wrongfully imprisoned while the courts deny him justice."
In a 2023 written question to the European Commission, a group of members of the European Parliament noted:
"Parliament's resolution of 29 April 2021 on the blasphemy laws in Pakistan outlines a culture of harassment, violence and even murder stemming from Pakistan's controversial 1986 blasphemy laws. The resolution highlights an alarming increase in blasphemy accusations, which often target Christians.
"False blasphemy accusations hinder Christians from speaking freely or engaging in religious activities. For instance, in August 2023, a mob burned 26 churches in Jaranwala, Pakistan, following blasphemy claims."
Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that a 2023 bill adopted by Pakistan's parliament further strengthens the nation's strict blasphemy laws, which are often used to settle personal scores or persecute minorities, adding:
"Those convicted of insulting the Prophet Muhammad's wives, companions or close relatives will now face 10 years in prison, a sentence that can be extended to life, along with a fine of 1 million rupees, roughly $4,500. It also makes the charge of blasphemy an offense for which bail is not possible."
These laws can now be used to punish anyone convicted of insulting individuals connected to Islam's founder, Mohammed.
The imprisonment of Masih is not an isolated case. Christians in Pakistan face growing violence, discrimination, kidnappings, forced conversions, forced marriages and murder. The government of Pakistan does nothing to protect them.
A Pakistani Christian mother of five, Asia Bibi, for instance, was convicted of blasphemy by a Pakistani court and sentenced to death by hanging in 2010. She was later saved from death row in Pakistan thanks to international pressure on Pakistan.
According to the organization Open Doors, the persecution of Christians in Pakistan is "extreme":
"Christians in Pakistan are considered second-class citizens and face discrimination in every aspect of life. Jobs that are seen as low, dirty and degrading are reserved for Christians by the authorities....They lack proper representation in politics and although there were no major attacks against churches last year, there are almost constant attacks against individuals. Many do not feel safe to worship freely.
"Pakistan's notorious blasphemy laws target religious minorities (including Muslim minorities), but affect the Christian minority in particular –roughly a quarter of all blasphemy accusations target Christians, who only make up 1.8% of the population. The number of blasphemy cases is increasing, as is the number of Christian (and other minority religion) girls being abducted, abused and forcibly converted to Islam.
"In addition to social hostility, Christians also experience apathy from the authorities who should protect them. The police force is more interested in appeasing local strongmen than implementing the law and protecting minorities. Courts have a slightly better track record in enforcing the law fairly, but lengthy delays are commonplace. Christians often languish in prison for years before judgment is handed down, and it is then too late to bring about change.
"The Christian community feels increasingly trapped between the Islamic extremist groups that operate in the region, and a government that appeases these groups. They feel vulnerable without a trusted authority to protect their rights."
Despite these practices, Pakistan has been one of the top recipients of US foreign aid. From 2001 until the second Obama Administration, Pakistan received billions of dollars of U.S. military aid. The aid ostensibly had certain goals, such as assisting Pakistan in fighting terrorism, and developing a democratic government that would create peace inside the country and with its neighbors. However, despite billions of dollars towards these aims, none of these goals have been achieved.
As Dr. S Akbar Zaidi of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace wrote in 2011:
"Given the large sums of money that the United States has invested in aid to Pakistan, assessing the success of these funds becomes critically important. What becomes clear almost immediately is that counterterrorism assistance since 2002 has not achieved the objectives of either the United States or Pakistan. In fact, it is not entirely clear that the Pakistani military shares the objectives of the United States, even as it receives billions in military aid.
"There has been little to no oversight of how the funds were actually spent, even given the potentially divergent goals of the American and Pakistani militaries. The Pakistani military in fact spent a large portion of aid funds to purchase conventional military equipment rather than to fight terrorism or advance U.S. foreign policy aims."
In the nearly 13 years that have passed since Zaidi's report was published, the security situation and human rights record of Pakistan has not much improved.
In September 2023, US Rep. Andy Ogles proposed an amendment to the House of Representatives' annual appropriations legislation, seeking to bar US aid to Pakistan, in order to discourage its ongoing crackdown on political dissent. A total of 298 Representatives voted against the proposed amendment, while 132 voted in favor.
Meanwhile, Pakistan remains a major global center of Islamist terrorism, a country where blasphemy -- even if one did not commit it -- is a crime punishable by death, and where religious minorities are severely persecuted.
Recently, Afghan refugees living in Pakistan -- who fled to escape the horrors of the Taliban regime in power since the Biden administration abandoned Afghanistan -- were deported from Pakistan back to Afghanistan.
It would be advisable for the US government to suspend all aid to Pakistan until its government takes concrete steps to free the many victims of its deadly blasphemy laws; persuade Pakistan to discontinue enforcing them altogether; improve minority rights, and, most importantly, stop enabling Islamist terrorism.
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, a research fellow for the Philos Project, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.