ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- What is proper punishment for a 14-year-old boy accused of defiling a mosque with sacrilegious graffiti?
Death by hanging, Pakistani law and a judge in the city of Lahore have decided.
The harsh penalty meted out this month to young Salamat Masih and another Christian, Rehmat Masih, 40, has beamed a glaring spotlight on Pakistan's anti-blasphemy law, meant to punish insults against Islam and the Prophet Mohammed.
For some Pakistanis, the legislation and the mandatory death penalty that it carries cut to the quick of their country's uneasy efforts to balance Islamic sanctity with a largely secular political and legal system. Pakistan's small Christian community is particularly alarmed.
Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto pronounced herself "surprised, shocked and saddened" by the Feb. 9 verdict. She said she is worried that the case will stir up controversy during her visit to the United States in April.
But stung last year by the ire of Islamic clerics who opposed her plan to amend the anti-blasphemy law, she said this time that she would not interfere in the legal process.
The defendants are unrelated, their lawyer said. Masih, meaning "messiah," is a common family name among Pakistani Christians.
At the trial, there was no physical evidence against the defendants, and the accounts of the three Muslims who brought the complaint conflicted on certain points.
The court under Judge Mujahid Hussain was never told what allegedly had been chalked on the wall of the mosque in the Punjabi farming village of Ratta Dhotran on May 9, 1993.
The complainants said they erased the offensive remarks immediately. As for police, "the investigating officer admits that he did not read the words," said Mehbood Ahmed, a lawyer associated with the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Perhaps most troubling is the defense lawyer's contention that the younger Masih, who was 12 at the time of the alleged scribbling, is illiterate and therefore couldn't have written anything at all.
During the trial, one of the complainants, Mohammad Baksh Lambardar, had trouble reading a copy of the "kalima tayyaba," the basic credo that most Muslims know by heart. So how could he have read graffiti to judge it blasphemous? some wondered.
Judge Hussain found them both guilty, sweeping aside their contention that Christian-Muslim tensions in the village had led some of their neighbors to bear false witness.
"No Muslim in my considered opinion would stoop so low as to prepare such indecent material containing derogatory remarks about the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him," the judge said.
There had been a third defendant, Manzoor Masih, 40, charged in the same episode. But he was killed outside the Lahore High Court last April by unidentified gunmen.
Main plaintiff Maulvi Fazal-e-Haq told the court he did not wish to pursue the case and had removed the power of attorney from his lawyer, but the court said the case could not be dismissed since it involved a crime against the state.
Asma Jahangir, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the defendants' attorney, had a personal encounter with the intense passions aroused by the case last Thursday after she argued her appeal before the Lahore High Court.
As she walked to her car, she was threatened by about 200 bearded men wearing green turbans. They shouted threats at her, then grabbed and pummeled her driver. The windows of her car were smashed.
The blasphemy law was introduced by the late military dictator Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq in 1986 as part of his campaign to make Pakistan an Islamic state. In 1991, the option of life imprisonment for convicted blasphemers lapsed, making the death sentence mandatory.
Last week, Prime Minister Bhutto said that her government was holding consultations with religious parties to discuss making procedural changes in the law. But it is uncertain what she can do.
Officials in her government suggested last year that the law be amended to prevent it from being falsely used to settle personal scores. But death threats were made against her law minister, and the uproar from traditionalist mullahs was so great that she was forced to backtrack.
No one has ever been executed under the law, but according to press reports, at least six people accused of breaking it have been killed by incensed mobs. Last April a Muslim cleric, Farooq Sajjad, was lynched after rumors spread that he had burned pages from the Koran. He was believed to be the first Muslim killed here for alleged blasphemy.