Protests have engulfed the streets of various cities in Pakistan after Asia Bibi – a Christian woman on death row- was acquitted of Blasphemy charges by the Supreme Court. Protestors demand the decision to be revoked, have urged people to kill the Judge who has issued the verdict. Asia Bibi has been incarcerated for around 8 years and her case has had a significance effect on Pakistan’s politics. Since, the prevailing condition in the country was (and still is) quite antagonistic to those accused of Blasphemy, no one dared to touch her case. Despite the fact that she denied having blasphemed and prosecution failing to present credible witnesses, she was awarded death sentence by the trial court, which was later upheld by the High Court. Support to her cause has entailed two high profile killings in separate incidents – of then Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and of Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti. Taseer was a severe opponent of Anti-Blasphemy Law and has called it a black law on many International forums and had also tried to move for Presidential Pardon to Asia Bibi. Having spent years in solitary confinement on false and flimsy charges, Asia Bibi wasn’t given any bail or allowed to meet any family member until 2015.
Asia’s case is among thousands of cases which have been charged on people across faiths particularly targeting minorities (who constitute just 3%) since the new law came into force in the year 1986 under the dictatorship of General Ziaul haq. Between 1947 when Pakistan got its independence and 1986 the year that Section 295 was amended, only 14 cases of blasphemy were registered. New law which added the clauses to Sec 295 (an imperial legacy) increased the severity of punishment to long incarcerations and mandatory death penalty. The law has subsequently been used to harass minorities, seculars, liberals, dissenters, and in most cases to settle personal score and vendetta. It also remains a fact that the blasphemy law is against the basic tenets of Quran and the Islamic Law which essentially allow capital punishment only for murder, and spreading disharmony and terrorism. There are also many problems associated with the law which infringes the basic human right.
The law not only allows the incarceration of people but also threaten the lives of the accused in the jails and outside. It gives an impetus for the mob justice. According to estimates, no less than 60 people have lost their lives at the hands of fanatic individuals and the mob since the 1980s after they were accused of blasphemy. Only last year, a student of Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan, Pakistan was lynched at the hand of the mob after being falsely accused of blasphemy.
Courts in Pakistan have admitted that most of the cases registered are false and baseless. Apart from hordes of false cases, many mentally ill people have been charged with the sacrilege. Because the judicial system in the country is incapable and weak to hear all the cases, people have been either been convicted arbitrarily or are waiting for the trial for years. A fair trial in most cases remains a distant mirage.
There are very few people who are willing to support the accused as no one wants to be seen standing with the blasphemers. Also, it threatens their own lives; of which assassinations of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti are exemplary. Lawyers also tend to abstain from defending the accused. Back in 2014, a prominent lawyer and regional coordinator of the Humans Right Commission of Pakistan named Rashid Rehman was killed by gunmen after he refused to abandon his client Junaid Hafeez.
Condition with judges is no good either. Judgments in most cases depend on the attitude of the presiding judges, which makes it more dangerous. In Asia’s case, both the judges from Trial and High Courts didn’t pay any heed to her testimony or to the fact that evidences were insufficient. According to a 2015 report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, judges are also often harassed and threatened to ensure that the suspects are convicted. Courtrooms in most cases are filled with angry crowds who chant slogans, which evidently influences the judgment. In other cases, it also affects the sentences of those convicted in the killing of blasphemy-accused. Judge Pervaiz Ali Shah had to flee the country for some days after he sentenced death penalty to Mumtaz Ali Qadri for the assassination of Salman Taseer.
As Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty International’s Director of Global issues has put it, “There is overwhelming evidence that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws violate human rights and encourage people to take law into their own hands. Once a person is accused, they become ensnared in a system that offers them few protections, presumes them guilty, and fails to safeguard them against people willing to use violence.”
Main Problems with the Blasphemy Laws
Even if the data above were otherwise, can we really support Anti-Blasphemy Laws? These laws are extremely inhumane in nature and fringe upon the basic human rights of the people. The very first thing it does is violating the right to freedom of expression. No matter what the popular opinion of the people is, every individual must have the right to speak their minds which of course includes the right to offend. Every individual also has right not to be offended. Blasphemy or sacrilege doesn’t necessarily incite the violence but Anti-Blasphemy laws do. Taking offence is a relative thing which changes from one individual to another. Besides, all the countries have laws which restrict the incitement of violence and racial or religious hatred which are more than sufficient to contain any communal disharmony.
Blasphemy laws protect the religious people and institutions from different kind of criticism. For example, at some level, one cannot even criticize the misogynistic interpretations or principles of religions. Or say child marriages, genital mutilations, or the ban on inter-religious marriages. Many statutes around the world have defended members of religious institutions from being convicted of paedophilia or rapes.
It also limits any other interpretation of religions besides the established ones which infringe upon the freedom religion. Targeting minority sectarian groups within the religion can be the case in point.
Most importantly these laws tend to legitimize the communal and mob violence against individuals and groups. It also tends to legitimize the prosecution, targeting and silencing of the minorities.
Thus, it is imperative of the international community to push for the change in these laws in Pakistan. We, in India, must also oppose the September 2018 Punjab blasphemy laws.