The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is dismayed that Munawar Mohsin, a former subeditor of the national daily Frontier Post, has been sentenced to life in prison by a court in North West Frontier Province on charges of blasphemy.
On July 8 in Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province, sessions court judge Sardar Irshad convicted Mohsin of blasphemy and sentenced him to life in prison for publishing a letter to the editor titled "Why Muslims Hate Jews," which included derogatory references to the Prophet Mohammed. Judge Irshad acquitted two other former Frontier Post staffers--then news editor Aftab Ahmad and computer operator Wajihul Hassan--but ruled that, "The evidence on the record reflects [that the] accused Munawar has intentionally and willfully committed an offense under the Pakistan Penal Code."
However, lawyers and journalists present during the proceedings told CPJ that there was no evidence to support the contention that Mohsin published the offensive letter intentionally, a crucial element in determining criminal culpability. On the contrary, in testimony given before a magistrate soon after his arrest on January 29, 2001, Mohsin admitted that he had published the letter by mistake, without reading the full text carefully. In an interview with The New York Times, he said that he "could never think of abusing our Holy Prophet" but admitted that, having only recently completed a drug rehabilitation program, he had not been able to focus fully on his editorial responsibilities.
CPJ is also worried about the safety of Frontier Post managing editor Mahmood Shah Afridi, who was also charged and has gone into hiding. Judge Irshad issued a warrant for Afridi's arrest for failing to appear before the court to face the charge against him.
As a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to defending our colleagues worldwide, CPJ believes the Pakistani government should never have brought criminal charges against the Frontier Post journalists. On January 30, 2001, the day after the letter was published, the Post placed prominent advertisements on the front pages of the country's major Urdu- and English-language dailies, noting that it "profoundly regrets the publication . . . of highly blasphemous material masquerading as a letter to the editor."
Despite the paper's unequivocal public apology, religious groups staged violent demonstrations, with some protestors calling for the journalists to be executed. In one particularly disturbing incident, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the Frontier Post's offices and set fire to the building housing the paper's printing press.
As CPJ noted in an open letter to Your Excellency at the time, the punitive action by the government against the Frontier Post journalists was unwarranted in light of the paper's unequivocal apology and only heightened the dangers for newspaper staff.
Even when, in March 2001, a judicial inquiry into the Frontier Post case determined that the offending letter was published due to negligence and not to any malicious intent, provincial authorities decided to proceed with the criminal prosecution against the journalists.
CPJ therefore strongly urges Your Excellency to pardon Munawar Mohsin immediately, and to instruct provincial authorities to withdraw the arrest warrant against Mahmood Shah Afridi.
We also respectfully remind Your Excellency of your earlier pledge to reform Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which have been used to persecute journalists and religious minorities, and we encourage you to revisit this issue.
We thank you for your attention to this urgent matter and await your response.
Ann K. Cooper