Ashfaq Masih, 34, was arrested in 2017 after he got into a verbal disagreement with a Muslim customer at his motorbike repair shop in Lahore after the man refused to pay his bill. The customer had asked for a waiver on the grounds that he was a religious devotee – but Ashfaq Masih refused the request, saying he believed in Jesus Christ and wasn’t interested in the man’s religious status as a Muslim.

Ashfaq Masih was accused of ‘disrespecting’ the Prophet Muhammad and arrested after he allegedly said that for Christians, Jesus was the ‘true prophet’. Five years after his arrest, Ashfaq Masih, who has a wife and daughter, was on Monday sentenced to death by a Lahore court.

Under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, anyone found guilty of insulting the religion of Islam or Islamic religious figures can be sentenced to death. While authorities have yet to carry out a death sentence for blasphemy, just the accusation can cause riots. In court, Ashfaq Masih insisted he was innocent of the charges and that the case against him was ‘baseless, false and frivolous’. He also said the accusation against him was made by a rival who wanted to destroy his motorbike repair business. ‘I insisted for my bill and said that I don’t follow anyone other than Jesus, and so wasn’t interested in the man’s religious status.’ 

Ashfaq Masih has been in prison for five years awaiting his conviction due to a series of adjournments. His mother died in 2019 while he was behind bars and he was released on parole to visit her funeral. Because of pressure from the Islamic groups, lower courts’ judges are always hesitant to free the victims but make popular decisions to save their skin and shift their burden to the high court. ‘He is innocent and has already spent five years in prison for a crime he never committed.’

A number of people have been sentenced to death in Pakistan for blasphemy. 

In January, a Pakistani court sentenced a Muslim woman to death after finding her guilty of blasphemy for insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in text messages she sent to a friend. The woman, Aneeqa Atteeq, was arrested in May 2020 after the man alerted police that she sent him caricatures of the Prophet — considered sacrilegious — via WhatsApp. According to a court order, the woman was also sentenced to 10 years in jail. Read more: Two Christian Brothers Have Been Sentenced To Death On Blasphemy Charges Domestic and international human rights groups say blasphemy allegations have often been used to intimidate religious minorities and to settle personal scores.