NEW DELHI: The governor of Jakarta in Indonesia recently faced criticism when he controversially quoted a Quranic verse while campaigning for elections. Despite his numerous apologies on the subject, many angered citizens took to the streets protesting in large numbers.

Such numbers have not been seen in Indonesia for many years, and this surge of popular opinion resulted in the governor being officially charged with blasphemy. Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, the governor in question, is currently undergoing trial. Under Indonesia's strict blasphemy laws, Ahok -- who is a Christian of Chinese descent -- could face up to five years in jail if found guilty.

Indonesia prohibits blasphemy by its Criminal Code. The Code’s Article 156(a) targets those who deliberately, in public, express feelings of hostility, hatred, or contempt against religions with the purpose of preventing others from adhering to any religion, and targets those who disgrace a religion. The penalty for violating Article 156(a) is a maximum of five years imprisonment.

The laws date back to 1965. In keeping with its founding principles, which include belief in God, Indonesia criminalises any “deviation” from six officially recognised religions, as well as acts or words deemed “hostile” to God, without stating which one. During the 32-year rule of Suharto, Indonesia’s late strongman, the laws were rarely invoked. But since the country’s transformation into a vibrant free-speaking democracy after Suharto’s ouster in 1998, they have been used more frequently.

Amnesty International counts at least 106 convictions since 2005. Most obvious targets are religious minorities, including Muslim minorities such as the Ahmadiyya, as well as those who have no religious faith at all. One recent case, in 2012, saw a 30-year-old civil servant jailed for two-and-a-half years for declaring himself an atheist on facebook.

Anti-blasphemy laws rarely encourage tolerance and promote peace as they are intended in reality political outfits have been widely exploiting these laws in order to win over religious majorities for their own political benefit and in this case its Islamic Defenders Front previously seen as a fringe group of extremists in Indonesia.

Anti-blasphemy laws still exist in many Muslim nations where they are also primarily used to oppress religious minorities.

In Malaysia, Articles 295-298A of the Malaysian Penal Code provides penalties for those who commit offenses against religion. The penalties range from up to three years in prison or a fine of up to US$1,000 (approximately). Prosecutions for blasphemy usually target those who offend Islam, but an insult to any religion can give rise to prosecution.

The blasphemy law in Pakistan is an extension of offences relating to religion that were first codified by British rulers of the Subcontinent in 1860. Pakistan inherited these laws when it came into existence after the partition of India in 1947.The blasphemy laws were introduced through Sections 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code during the dictatorial regime of General Ziaul Haq which made it a criminal offence to use derogatory remarks in respect of the Quran and the Holy Prophet.

There have been at least almost 702 cases registered against minorities, which equates to 52 per cent of total cases against four per cent of the population of Pakistan. Critics say the fact that minorities figure so prominently in the cases shows how the laws are unfairly applied. The laws are mainly used to settle personal scores and have little or nothing to do with religion.

Salman Taseer, the then governor of Punjab province in Pakistan was killed in by his bodyguard in 2011 for vocally seeking to amend the law and appealing for clemency for Asia Bibi; a Christian women on death row since 2010. A month after he was killed, Religious Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who spoke out against the laws, was shot dead in Islamabad, underlining the threat faced by critics of the law.

Pakistan has yet to execute anyone for blasphemy. Most of those given the death penalty have their sentences overturned or commuted on appeal.

However in 2010, a member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Sherry Rehman, introduced a private bill to amend the blasphemy law. Her bill sought to change procedures of religious offences so that they would be reported to a higher police official and the cases heard directly by the higher courts. The bill was passed on to a parliamentary committee for vetting. It was withdrawn in February 2011 under pressure from religious forces as well as some opposition political groups.

In India, Section 295 A of the Indian Penal Code “the lighter version of blasphemy law” penalises insulting the religion or religious beliefs of any class of citizens, if such insult is offered with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of that class. Section 295A is a cognizable offence, which means that the police are authorised to arrest accused persons without the need of a judicially sanctioned warrant.

Kiku Sharda, a stand up comic in 2016 was arrested and imprisoned for ‘mimicking’ a self styled spiritual leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh during a comedy show in India.