US Cites Blasphemy Law In Travel Advisory For Pakistan
NEW DELHI: Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law was cited by the United States as part of the reason why travel to the South Asian country remains unsafe. Warning its citizens from travelling to Pakistan, the State Department said in an advisory that “Sectarian violence remains a serious threat throughout Pakistan, and the Government of Pakistan continues to enforce blasphemy laws. Religious minority communities have been victims of targeted killings and accusations of blasphemy.”
The advisory also cited militancy and terror activity in the country amongst the reasons warning against travel, but the fact that blasphemy law was highlighted indicates criticism directed at the Pakistan establishment.
Blasphemy remains a sensitive issue in Pakistan, where the country’s tough anti-blasphemy laws are often invoked. Critics, however, allege that the law is misused to silence and curb dissent, and even attack and punish the country’s minorities. A report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom says Pakistan’s use of the blasphemy law is “incomparable” to anywhere else. 14 people are currently on death row in Pakistan and 19 others serving life sentences for charges of blasphemy against Islam.
A Human Rights Watch report states that “abuses are rife under the country’s abusive blasphemy law, which is used against religious minorities, often to settle personal disputes.” The report notes that at least 16 people were on death row for blasphemy and another 20 were serving life-sentences in 2013. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) stated that 34 people were charged with blasphemy in 2013.
The blasphemy laws, which relate to Section XV Articles 295-298 of the Pakistan Penal Code, are indicative of the growing intolerance and religious radicalisation in Pakistan. Although the Pakistan Penal Code always had a provision to safeguard against blasphemy, it was only in the 1980s that Islam was singled out receiving specific articles. In 1982, under General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, the death penalty and life imprisonment were added as punishments relating to the law.
The laws themselves are quite expansive. They prohibit expression that is intended to wound “religious feelings,” and deliberate or malicious acts intended to “outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs;” the laws specifically, through the provisions added in the 1980s, prohibit defiling the Quran and insulting the Prophet Muhammad, his wives, family or companions. The “misuse of epithets, descriptions and titles” is also prohibited. Following the 1982 amendment that introduced the death penalty and life imprisonment, an amendment in 1992 made the death penalty mandatory for individuals convicted of making derogatory remarks about the prophet. Since then, successive governments - both Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf expressed their commitment to amend the law - have failed to introduce measures to change the law, succumbing to pressures by extremists and clerics.
Critics of the blasphemy law have often been targeted, a famous example being Salman Taseer who was assassinated by his guard after defending Asia Bibi, a Christian woman charged under the blasphemy law. In 2011, Pakistan’s Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was gunned down after he campaigned for changes to the law - specifically the provision that judges be required to investigate cases of blasphemy before registering cases and a measure for punishment for false accusations. In July 2013, two brothers who were charged with defaming the prophet were shot dead as they stepped out of a courtroom.
The blasphemy laws exist in the social-cultural-political context of targeted attacks on religious minorities. They are representative of a climate that fosters intolerance and impunity, perpetuating grave human rights violations. Ironically, the laws are indicative of the erosion of the rule of law in Pakistan, with government institutions are at the mercy of islamist extremists - as evinced by the murder of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, or the failure of Benazir Bhutto or General Musharraf to amend the law despite publicly declaring their intention to do so.