Renewed Hope? Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws Under the Scanner Again

By Sushila Rao

Even as we continue to grapple with the horrific fallout of the provocative Innocence of Muslims film, the latest blasphemy-related saga in Pakistan appears to be headed for an unusual but highly welcome conclusion—the accused has been released on bail, and her accuser has been arrested for falsely implicating her.

The offender this time around was Rimsha Masih, a 14-year-old Christian girl who is believed to have Down syndrome. She was arrested for carrying scraps of a partially burned book that allegedly included verses from the Quran in her bag. A local cleric was later arrested for having planted evidence against Rimsha. It is speculated that he was acting on behalf of a group that allegedly wants to “cleanse” the local area of its Christian minority residents.  Rimsha has been released, albeit on a surety of 1,000,000 Pakistani rupees—a development that is being hailed as a watershed moment by lawyers and activists.

After all, in recent times, those who have incurred the wrath of the blasphemy brigadehave not been quite so fortunate. In 2010, the plight of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death by hanging for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammad while arguing with fellow farm workers, had raised international furor.  She is currently on death row, pending appeal of her sentence.  Her case was widely denounced as a patent miscarriage of justice, leading the then-Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, to call for repealing the anti-blasphemy provisions in 2011—a courageous pronouncement for which his own bodyguard promptly assassinated him. Two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in the Pakistani cabinet, was also shot dead after he criticized the anti-blasphemy laws.  And as recently as July 2012, an enraged mob dragged a man accused of desecrating the Quran from a police station in Bahawalpur, eventually dousing him in petrol and setting him on fire.

Activists and concerned clerics are touting the Rimsha case as a “test case” for Pakistan’s governing apparatus as well as its civil society, which will determine whether the nation can distance itself from a past marred by the practice of religious persecution.  Part XV of Pakistan’s Penal Code criminalizes “Offences Relating to Religion,” first codified by the British in 1860, and later expanded in 1927. Between 1980-86, the military government of General Zia-ul Haq added a significant number of provisions, with a predominantly Islamist flavor. A study by the Jinnah Institute revealed that there were only nine blasphemy cases in Pakistan between 1929 and 1982; since then, the number of blasphemy cases has sharply increased. Asconstitutional scholars in Pakistan have pointed out, apart from severely restricting the freedom of speech, these newly inserted provisions have made Muslims “more equal” than others in a sense.  For instance,  defilement of the “religious object” of Muslims—the Holy Qu’ran—now results in life imprisonment  under Section 295B of the Penal Code, while a similar offence against other communities will result in two years imprisonment.  Similarly, under Section 295C, a conviction for blaspheming the Prophet of Muslims carries the penalty of death or life imprisonment, while similar offenses with regard to important figures in other religious traditions carries the maximum penalty of 10 years under Section 295A.

The existence of these provisions on the statute books is evocative of a symbolic Damoclean sword for non-Muslims as well as Muslims exercising their freedom of speech, thought or action, inasmuch as reports show that the law is misused to harass, intimidate and settle personal scores.  Moreover, to obtain a conviction for blasphemy, intent need not be proved as an element of the offense. In an oft-cited case, a man from the minority Ismaili sect was accused of blasphemy for discarding the business card of a man named Muhammad.

Even more worrisome is the fact that since 1990, 52 people have been extra-judicially killed, simply for being  implicated on unproven charges of blasphemy, or even after being acquitted by the courts. Half of those slain were Muslim, 15 Christian, and the rest from different minority religions. At the lower rungs of the judiciary, there isoften considerable pressure on judges to convict alleged blasphemers without adequate evidence, thereby leading to acquittals on appeal.  Given the prevalent climate of fear, efforts to reform the law have been few and far in between.  In 2010, a member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, Sherry Rehman, introduced a private bill to amend the law to provide that these offences be reported to a higher police official (rather than the usual police station chief) and be heard in the first instance directly  by the higher courts.  It was withdrawn in February 2011 under pressure from religious forces as well as some opposition political groups. Broader legal reform of the blasphemy provisions remains, for the moment, politically “toxic,” and hence, untenable.

 


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