According to the latest World Report, 2017, published by Human Rights Watch (HRW), at least 19 people remained on death row after being convicted under Pakistan's draconian Blasphemy Law, and hundreds awaited trial. Most of those facing blasphemy are members of religious minorities, often victimized by these charges due to personal disputes. Further, the HRW 2015 Report suggested that, since 1990, 60 people have been murdered after being accused of blasphemy. Besides, in 2015, the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) listed a total of 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadis, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus who had been accused under innumerable clauses of the Blasphemy Law since 1987. The majority of these cases were for desecration of the Quran; a minority was for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad.
Lately, the 'pretext' of blasphemy has been devised in Pakistan, not only to persecute religious minorities, but also prominent political figures, as was evident in the case of Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab and Shahbaz Bhatti the Federal Minister for Minority Affairs. Both were brutally murdered in 2011 for questioning violence linked to allegations of blasphemy. Taseer was killed by one of his body guards, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, who had reportedly been incensed by the Governor's efforts to secure marginal amendments to the Blasphemy Law, as also his advocacy of Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman sentenced to death on November 7, 2010, for alleged blasphemy. Bhatti was killed on March 2, 2011, by unidentified militants, who fired 30 bullets at him and managed to escape. Pamphlets from two self-styled TTP factions, Fidayeen-e-Muhammad and al Qaeda Punjab Chapter, were found at the incident site, which declared, `anyone who criticises the blasphemy law has no right to live`.
In the initial phase after the creation of Pakistan, there were no legal provisions for religious discrimination. However, changes occurred during the military regime of Zia-ul-Haq (1978-1988) and the Blasphemy Law was promulgated in 1985. In 1990 the punishment of life imprisonment under this law, which sought to penalise irreverence towards the Holy Quran and insulting the Holy Prophet, was included. In 1992, the government went a step ahead and introduced the death penalty for a person held guilty of blasphemy under Blasphemy Clause 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code. Crucially, this was done under the 'democratic' government of Nawaz Sharif. The clause reads:
`Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine`.
However, in the aftermath of Mashal Khan's killing and public outrage, the Pakistani Parliament has passed a resolution for a change in the law. On April 18, 2017, the National Assembly passed a unanimous resolution to condemn `the barbaric and cold-blooded murder of Mashal Khan and resolves to ensure that strong safeguards may be inserted into the blasphemy law to prevent its abuse through such atrocities in the future, including by mobs involved in such crimes.` Federal Minister for Defence Production Rana Tanveer presented the resolution, which also demanded that the Federal and Provincial Governments take strict action against the 'perpetrators' and 'facilitators' of the heinous crime, including those making hate speeches. A probe found no proof of blasphemy by Mashal.
The dangers of the Blasphemy Law are that related `crimes` require no proof of intent or evidence to be presented after allegations are made and does not include any penalty for false allegations. Moreover, most of those who are accused in blasphemy crimes in Pakistan spend years in prison, waiting for a hearing.
Significantly, 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 be heard directly by the higher courts. The Bill was passed on to a Parliamentary Committee for vetting. However, Rehman was forced to withdraw the Bill in February 2011, under pressure from religious forces as well as some opposition political groups.
As is evident from the trends, the targets in these cases of violence are mostly minorities, both within and outside the realm of the 'majority sanctioned Islam' - often preached by the clerics to instigate and enlarge divisions in an already-fragmented Pakistani society. Pakistan is one of more than 30 countries that have blasphemy laws, which are usually enacted under the auspices of 'promoting religious harmony'. However, Human Rights groups confirm, the law, instead of promoting communal harmony, is frequently used to settle personal disputes, disproportionately targeting religious minorities - Christians, Hindus, or members of minority sects of Islam, and, increasingly, those declared 'deviant' by extremist Salafist-Sunni formations.
The blasphemy laws were introduced in purported attempts to bring Pakistan more in line with 'Islamic principles'. Instead, the laws have complicated the relationship between religion and democracy, and have raised questions regarding religious tolerance and Islam. In principle, blasphemy laws are supposed to protect the accused till there is proof of guilt. But in Pakistan, the wordings of the laws have converted them into tools of religious bigotry and violence.
Making the legal position worse in December 2013, the Federal Shariat Court ordered the Government to delete life imprisonment as a punishment in blasphemy cases, stating that death was the only sentence in cases of conviction and awarding any other punishment would be unlawful.
Pakistan's blasphemy laws, while purporting to protect Islam and the religious sensitivities of the Muslim majority, are vaguely formulated and arbitrarily enforced by the police and judiciary in a way that amounts to the persecution of religious minorities. As the 2013 Asian Human Rights Commission Report noted, moreover, alleged incidents of blasphemy by religious minorities are often used to fuel mob violence, targeted sectarian killings, looting, burning of houses, burning of or attacks on places of worship, descration of holy books, land grabs, etc.
The prevailing Blasphemy Law is consuming Pakistani society from within, giving legitimacy to heinous crime and human rights violations in a country that is ranked 153rd out of 163 countries in the 2016 Global Peace Index. The climate of hate and apathy in the system, often underpinned by state policy and law, provokes violence in all possible forms, including terrorism, extremism, violence against women, sectarian killing or random blasphemy related crime.
Visiting Scholar, Institute for Conflict Management