Members of Pakistan’s upper house of Parliament proposed changes last week to the country’s draconian blasphemy laws to discourage the rampant lodging of false and fabricated sacrilege cases against people.
The law has been grossly abused with many people lodging false cases to settle personal scores. But in Pakistan alleging that someone has committed blasphemy is a sensitive and risky matter, as it often ends in a mob lynching before the accused is tried in a competent court of law.
A Senate Special Committee on Human Rights suggested that complainants who make baseless allegations of blasphemy should be punished under the same law.
The Pakistan Penal Code prescribes punishment ranging from the death sentence to several years’ jail for those convicted under blasphemy offenses for insulting Islam.
Over 70 killed by lynch mobs
However, none of those convicted got capital punishment while more than 70 people were lynched to death by mobs led by right-wing vigilantes. Another 40 people are currently on death row or serving life imprisonment for blasphemy charges in Pakistan since 1990.
Under Section 182 of the penal code, a complainant who makes a false claim under the law faces up to seven years in jail or a fine of Rs 200,000 (US$1,808). The Senate recommended that this punishment be increased to 10 years and a death sentence if the accused desecrates the Prophet Muhammad – to balance punishment for false accusations with that of blasphemy.
The Senate committee also proposed that the plaintiff has to produce two witnesses at the time a complaint is registered who will testify that the accused has committed blasphemy to back what the complainant describes in the First Information Report (FIR).
The Senate proposal is supposed to go to the Council of Islamic Ideology — an advisory forum of religious scholars and clergy that recommends changes in the law in accordance with Islamic jurisprudence.
Senator Mufti Abdul Sattar, a member of Senate Human Rights Committee and a leader of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) told Asia Times: “Yes, I raised a serious objection on the proposed amendments because it attempts to sabotage the blasphemy law.”
The JUI-F senator, who lost his temper during standing committee proceedings, insisted that the recommendations should be sent to the Council for Islamic Ideology (CII) for ratification.
Country under pressure to change notorious law
“I still doubt they will send the proposal to CII. Instead, they will likely bulldoze the proposal to get it approved by the parliament,” Mufti claimed, adding that the government was under huge pressure from the US and European Union to pull the plug on the blasphemy law. “There is a deep-rooted conspiracy to impair the Islamic identity of the country,” he remarked.
The Council for Islamic Ideology is usually seen as regressive and not expected to go endorse the Senate proposals.
“No sane person can read the mind of a Mullah (a clergy leading Muslim prayers) but the incumbent CII chairman talks sense,” IA Rehman, secretary-general of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), said. Rehman welcomed the Senate proposal but said he personally opposed capital punishment even for people who commit offenses.
However, he said stern punishments would deter large-scale misuse of the blasphemy law. “There was a persistent demand for long that the brazen misuse and framing of blasphemy cases needed to be checked,” he added.
Rehman said the Islamabad High Court suggested amendments to the blasphemy law in October last year to make it tougher, by having the same punishment for committing blasphemy and falsely accusing someone of blasphemy.
Although the Senate’s move has been well-received by liberal and enlightened sections, religious political parties and radical groups are waiting in the wings to agitate if they feel threatened by the liberals.
“We have the power to disrupt elections in the country if we find that the rulers are involved in hatching a conspiracy to undo the blasphemy law or alter the Islamic identity of the state,” Mufti warned.
Ahmadis and Christians targeted under law
Data compiled by the National Commission for Justice and Peace reveals that as many as 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadis, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus have been tried under various clauses of the blasphemy law since 1987.
These figures also show how religious minorities such as Christians and Ahmadis have been vulnerable to abuses under the law. Recently, Rome’s Colosseum was lit in red to show support for persecuted Christians – notably Asia Bibi, a Pakistani woman – sentenced to death under the blasphemy law. Bibi, a Christian, was accused of blasphemy by her Muslim neighbors who did not approve of her drinking water from the same pot as them.
Meanwhile, extrajudicial killing of blasphemy suspects has risen also since 2011 when Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the minority minister, were gunned down within a span of two months.
In 2014, a Christian couple in Punjab was beaten to death by an angry crowd after they were accused of desecrating the Koran (Islamic scriptures). Their dead bodies were incinerated in a brick kiln where they used to work.
And in April last year, university student Mashal Khan was killed and two others wounded after a violent mob attacked them after blasphemy accusations at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan. An investigation committee later found no proof that the student committed blasphemy.