Blasphemy in Pakistan: time to repeal a flawed law

by Beena Sarwar
07 December 2010
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Karachi, Pakistan - On 29 November, the Lahore High Court blocked the government from pardoning Aasiya Noreen, a Christian Pakistani woman accused of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. A few days earlier, extremist groups protested on the streets of the Pakistani city of Lahore and threatened anarchy in the event that the government grants her clemency. And this week, an imam at a mosque in Peshawar has offered nearly $6,000 to anyone who kills her if the death sentence ruling is not upheld.

The death sentence delivered to Noreen by a Punjab-based Session Court in early November has once again highlighted the controversial blasphemy laws that blight the country’s statute books.

Ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) parliamentarian Sherry Rehman has submitted a bill seeking to repeal or at least review these laws, with proposed amendments including consideration of the intent of the accused.

In Pakistan’s Criminal Code damaging or defiling a place of worship or a sacred object was deemed a criminal act under Section 295 of the colonial law inherited from the British; Section 295-A dealt with enraging religious feelings in the people, while 295-B dealt with defiling the Qur’an.

In 1986, under military dictator President General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, a new section – 295-C – was introduced to criminalise defamation against the Prophet Mohammad, regardless of the intent of the accused to do so, punishable by life imprisonment and added the death penalty as an option for convictions under 295-C.

And in 1990, death became the mandatory sentence for those found guilty of 295-C crimes. The Federal Shariat Court, a court introduced by Zia based on a conservative interpretation of Islamic principles, had earlier ruled that death was the only permissible punishment for anyone guilty of derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad.

According to a study by the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), 1,058 people – 50 per cent of whom identified as Muslims – have been accused under 295-C since 1986. And although no one has yet been executed by the state for a blasphemy conviction, vigilantism or mob lynching have claimed at least 32 lives of those accused of blasphemy or simply even “disrespect” to Islam.

Accordingly, although Aasiya Noreen has filed a mercy petition against her death sentence handed down by the Session Court, her life and that of her immediate family – her husband and four children – remain in danger from vigilantes.

The severity of the blasphemy laws, notes the Independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), has "provided a handle to the unscrupulous to settle their own scores." This observation is based on HRCP’s own investigations into such cases, and findings that the allegations of blasphemy tend to be “premeditated”, levied against others for reasons of personal enmity, economic rivalry or political motivation.

Some recent examples include the April 2009 lynching of Najeeb Zafar, a young Muslim factory owner in Sheikhupura, Punjab, murdered by his own workers after a disgruntled employee accused him of desecrating Qur’anic verses printed on a calendar.

A few months later, a mob razed two Christian villages in Gojra, Punjab, killing nine Christians, following allegations that some Christians had desecrated the Qur’an; evidence points to a premeditated plan aimed at clearing out the village from the area, while the administration turned a deaf ear to the warnings and pleas of observers.

Due to a general lack of legal awareness and confusion about religious matters, such accusations are enough to render the accused guilty in the public eye. The involvement of influential religious leaders who also carry political clout ensures that no action by the police is taken against those responsible.

Unfortunately, despite calls from human rights activists and several other public figures, as well as much of the Pakistani public, the laws are unlikely to be repealed. The PPP has only a simple majority in the National Assembly and a minority in the Senate. And most of its coalition partners will not support this move for fear of being seen as “un-Islamic”.

Even if the PPP were to succeed in repealing or amending the blasphemy laws, although it certainly would be a welcome first step, this would not be enough to create a shift in attitudes. Much more needs to be done. The government must overhaul the education policies and curricula that still teach hatred against non-Muslims and promote an intolerant mindset not only in religious schools but also in mainstream educational institutions. And it must de-politicise the police, to enable them to act according to the law instead of at the behest of, or under the influence of, local political or religious leaders.

Ultimately, the government must ensure the rule of law in the country and charge, try and punish those who incite violence, taking into account the mala fide intentions that often motivate blasphemy accusations.

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* Beena Sarwar is a journalist and documentary filmmaker currently working with the Jang Group in Pakistan. She has participated in several fact-finding investigations into blasphemy accusations. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 7 December 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
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