ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 15 (UPI) -- Pakistan took another significant step against religious extremists Thursday when the country's Supreme Court ordered authorities to release a Christian sentenced to death for blasphemy in 1998.
Police have arrested dozens of Christians under the law, which has been condemned by all human rights groups in Pakistan.
Ayub Masih, a Christian teenager, was sentenced to death in 1998 by a lower court for allegedly making blasphemous statements against Prophet Mohammed.
The verdict sparked a countrywide protest by Christians and human rights groups opposed to the country's controversial blasphemy law.
Under this law -- promulgated by the former military dictator Gen. Ziaul Huq -- only the word of a Muslim accuser is needed to prosecute a non-Muslim on blasphemy charges, which can carry the death penalty upon conviction.
Defense attorney Abid Minto told the Supreme Court that his client had never made the allegedly blasphemous statements and was framed by some Muslims in his village who wanted to seize Masih's land.
After hearing his arguments, the court ordered Masih released.
Masih was arrested in Punjab province in 1996 after a neighbor complained that Masih had praised British writer Salman Rushdie.
Rushdie's novel, "The Satanic Verses," had stirred violent protests by Muslims across the world for allegedly making derogatory remarks about Islam's prophet.
Minto produced evidence that the accuser had used the conviction to force Masih's family off of their land.
About 97 percent of Pakistan's 145 million people are Muslim. Christians constitute a small portion of the remaining 3 percent and are discriminated against by Muslim religious groups.
Recently, there have been several attacks on Christian churches, schools and hospitals, killing dozens of people.