Pakistan's Apex Court Examines Blasphemy Laws In Salmaan Taseer Murder Case
NEW DELHI: Salmaan Taseer, who was served as a governor of Punjab till he was assassinated because of his criticism of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, has become the catalyst of what could be a landmark judgement.
The Supreme Court is currently hearing Mumtaz Qadri’s appeal against his death sentence, awarded in connection to the assassination of Taseer. “We have to look into whether the deceased (Salmaan Taseer) indeed committed the act of blasphemy or he commented adversely on the effects of the blasphemy law,” observed Justice Dost Mohammad Khan.
According to Dawn News: In any democratic government, the nation has the right to criticise any law made by the parliament because it was made by representatives of the people, Justice Khosa said, indicating that criticism of the blasphemy law should not count as an offence.
Qadri’s lawyer maintains, according to Dawn News, that the accused was a straightforward man who had a justification for killing the former governor, admitting that whatever he did was in accordance with the dictates of the Holy Quran and the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), because he was convinced that the victim had committed blasphemy by calling the blasphemy law “a black law”.
The court is to resume proceedings on Tuesday. The case comes on the heels of another significant case relating to the blasphemy law. In July, the Supreme Court stayed the execution of Asia Bibi -- a Christian woman awarded the death penalty on charges of blasphemy. In the petition, Bibi stated that she had not made any blasphemous remarks, and that the charges had been wrongly levelled against her because of a personal feud.
Bibi, for those unaware, is a Pakistani Christian woman who has been convicted of blasphemy and is facing the death penalty. Why? In June 2009, Asia Bibi (known also as Aasiya Noreen) was involved in an argument with a group of Muslim women with whom she had been harvesting berries. The women, it seems, were angry that Bibi was drinking from the same vessel of water as them. As the argument got heated, Bibi -- the women concerned allege -- insulted the Prophet Mohammad.
In 2010, a court in Pakistan convicted her of blasphemy and imposed the death penalty (and a fine of $1100). Bibi describes the day of her sentencing as follows:
“I cried alone, putting my head in my hands. I can no longer bear the sight of people full of hatred, applauding the killing of a poor farm worker. I no longer see them, but I still hear them, the crowd who gave the judge a standing ovation, saying: "Kill her, kill her! Allahu Akbar!" The court house is invaded by a euphoric horde who break down the doors, chanting: "Vengeance for the holy prophet. Allah is great!" I was then thrown like an old rubbish sack into the van... I had lost all humanity in their eyes.”
Bibi, although the first woman to be convicted and punished by death for blasphemy in Pakistan, is by no means alone. 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 Bibi. 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.