Pakistan Speeds up Blasphemy Trials
All Pakistan Minorities Alliance activists raise their voice against the blasphemy laws.
NEW DELHI: The Punjab government in Pakistan has shortlisted 50 cases currently under trial under the blasphemy law in courts for a speedy trial. The rationale behind the decision is to provide judgements on cases that have been long-delayed due to lack of evidence, poor evidence, and non-availability of their counsel.
In respect to the latter, the government is expected to provide “defence” -- as those accused of blasphemy very rarely are able to get representation due to threats and societal constraints.
In fact, the blasphemy law is routinely used in Pakistan as a means to target 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 Governor Salman Taseer who was assassinated by his guard after defending a Christian woman accused of blasphemy three years ago. 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.