Pakistan has one of the Muslim world's harshest laws against blasphemy, which includes a wide variety of actions or comments that can be interpreted as defaming Islam, the prophet Muhammad or other Islamic figures. Although death sentences are rare, defendants are often sent to prison after cursory hearings and may remain there for years. Christians and other religious minority members are often accused of blasphemy as a result of personal grievances or community disputes, sometimes leading to enraged mob violence and vigilante attacks. Some defendants have been killed in police custody.
Police said the accuser in this case, a Muslim man named Yasir Bashir, told them James had sent him a sacrilegious poem on the instant messaging service Whatsapp, but a brother of James told authorities that James is illiterate and did not know how to use the app. A police official said they had filed the charges after seeing the "derogatory contents of the poem" on Bashir's mobile phone. He refused to discuss what it said, but described it as "very insulting" and said he regretted having to read it at all.
Since 1987, when the regime of military leader Mohammad Zia ul-Haq enacted harsh laws against an array of religious and moral offenses, more than 1,400 people have been charged with blasphemy in Pakistan, according to the National Commission for Justice and Peace. Since 2010, at least nine have been sentenced to death but none has been executed. Many of the accused are Ahmedis, a minority Muslim sect that is widely ostracized.
But the highly emotional issue has led to horrific murders, including 65 extra-judicial killings since 1990. In 2014, a Christian couple accused of blasphemy were caught by a mob and burned to death in a brick factory where they had worked for 18 years. The accuser, a neighbor who had a dispute with their family, said he saw the wife burning pieces of the Koran, and a visiting cleric roused the community to seek revenge by firing a gun from the local mosque, according to a lengthy report in Al Jazeera online.
In 2010, a poor Christian woman was accused of blasphemy after an argument with Muslim field workers, then swiftly tried and sent to prison. The provincial governor, liberal politician Salman Taseer, spoke out in her defense and called for reforms in the blasphemy law. In January 2011, Taseer was assassinated by his own bodyguard, who said he had acted out of his "religious duty" to defend Islam. Although praised as a hero by numerous Islamic groups in Pakistan, the killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was imprisoned and hanged in February of this year.
Efforts by members of Parliament to introduce more moderate blasphemy laws have been repeatedly stymied by religious leaders and conservative politicians. In the past year, cases of blasphemy-related violence have increased, including the murder of lawyers who represented accused blasphemers and religious scholars who called for legal reforms, according to the Al Jazeera report.