In the depths of a squalid Pakistani jail cell – kept far from the rest of the inmate population at Lahore’s District Prison – a poor Christian factory worker is awaiting execution.
A judge convicted Asif Pervaiz, 37, of blasphemy and he was sentenced to death earlier this month. Those advocating for Pervaiz’s innocence claim it was not blasphemy and that he merely refused to buckle to pressure and convert to Islam.
“This is a tragic situation; the first case in Pakistan’s recent history where a Christian has been accused of blasphemy for refusing to embrace Islam,” Pervaiz’s attorney, Saif Malook, told Fox News. “This man, Asif’s boss, wanted him to leave Christianity, and Asif knew he would suffer a lot by saying no. But he kept his faith.”
Pervaiz’s nightmare began in 2013 after his supervisor, Muhammad Saeed Khokher, at the garment factory where he worked allegedly pressured him to become a Muslim on multiple occasions, according to Malook. When he refused, Khoker went to police with allegations that the devoted Christian had sent him “blasphemous” text messages defaming the Muslim Prophet Muhammed.
Khokher has since denied that he had attempted to compel his work subordinate to convert. In Pakistan, insulting the Prophet carries a mandatory sentence of capital punishment, and the court has vowed that Pervaiz will be “hanged by his neck until death.”
However, the defendant has firmly dismissed the claims, and his attorney further contended that at the time, some seven years ago, anybody could purchase a phone SIM card without showing identification. While legislation has since become tougher and chips now require registration in Pakistan, anybody could simply claim a text message came from a person without verifiable proof.
Malook is preparing to appeal the death sentence, yet he has cautioned his client that the process will mean many more years ailing behind bars.
“As a person, Asif has always been a special young man – very strong, and he never wept until this month when they sentenced him to death. Mentally, he is feeling broken,” his lawyer continued. “I’ve told him that he must find his strength – it is a long journey ahead, that he will not survive unless he can stay strong. I wanted to lie and tell him it would be over soon, but it will be many more years of fighting.”
Malook also boldly took on the Asia Bibi case in Pakistan, the impoverished Christian woman who was also convicted of blasphemy. Her case languished on death row for almost 10 years through a long series of appeals and threats before finally being freed in October 2018. Months later, she quietly fled her homeland to the relative safety of Canada as protests over her acquittal erupted in the streets.
And in cases like Pervaiz, it is not just the accused who suffer.
His beleaguered wife – who was diagnosed with cancer – and four young children remain in hiding. Since his arrest seven years ago, they have struggled to find food and any means of income – relying on pennies from local Christian charities for survival.
Watching from behind iron bars as his family falls apart is eating away at Asif’s sanity, Malook noted.
“His wife is still very sick, almost like a skeleton, and she fell down and collapsed at the prison while we met with Asif,” Malook said on Friday, just hours after returning from the meeting. “The children were weeping for their father; they are all under threat. Everyone is scared to be around them; they are a poor family as it is. It was just so sad.”
International human rights bodies have long warned that in Pakistan, unmerited accusations of blasphemy continue to imperil lives – and not only within the minority Christian population. As Malook observed, most of the country’s blasphemy charges are directed at Muslims.