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Revisiting Pakistan’s blasphemy law

Nasir Saeed
Daily Times, 06 September 2017

Recently, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) published its report on blasphemy laws in 71 countries and punishments ranging from imprisonment, lashings or a death sentence. The commission has called for the repeal of the blasphemy law, stating that it invites abuse and fails to protect freedoms of religion and expression.

Iran and Pakistan are two high ranking countries for having capital punishment in their law. The countries are ranked according to how their blasphemy laws contravene international law principles. Along with Egypt, Pakistan is considered a country where its blasphemy law can be misused by authorities to repress minorities, and where it can be misused by extremists and promotes religious hatred. Surprisingly Saudi Arabia, is not among the top high risk countries, despite floggings and amputations being reported for alleged blasphemy. But it is only 12th, as punishment is not defined in their blasphemy law itself.

Pakistan is the top high risk ranking country where its use and abuse is widespread, because the government is inadvertent and courts delay justice, so people have assumed the right to become self-judges and decide the fate of alleged blasphemers with impunity, there and then. In most cases, if the victim belongs to a minority they will be killed. There are several examples of innocent people being burnt alive.

Our politicians, law enforcement agencies and the courts are all aware of the situation and how the blasphemy law is being misused by people to take revenge and settle personal scores with their opponents. It is very easy to accuse someone of blasphemy, but our politicians still fail to discuss this matter in parliament, and those who have tried to initiate the discussion on this law have been threatened with death.

The influence of religion in the political sphere has continually contributed to the persistence of the Blasphemy Law. The majority of politicians consider it a sensitive issue, and those who dissent, avoid commenting or expressing their views publicly. There is a very little hope for families whose love ones have been suffering for years in prison, or killed for crimes they never committed. Mashal Khan is a recent example while Asia Bibi is nearing 3000 days of suffering.

The law is used by zealots to suppress liberals and others who think differently. Over the years, it has become evident that the blasphemy law singles out non-Muslims for persecution. Religious minorities consider themselves a main target of this law as their worship places, honour and properties are all under attack because of this law. During blasphemy trials, Islamic militants often pack the courtroom and make public threats about the consequences of an acquittal. Now, for the safety of the accused and judges, most of the time cases are heard in prison. Still, in many cases, the accused in a blasphemy case is killed extra-judicially.

The blasphemy law is not only affecting Pakistan’s minorities, but it is affecting our international relations, especially with the West. This is not the only occasion when the USCIRF has called to repeal the blasphemy law, but it does so almost every year and even has recommended to the US government that Pakistan should be designated among ‘countries of particular concern’.

It has been avoided for the last several years because Pakistan has been their vital ally in the war of terror, but since the new US president, Donald Trump, has changed its policy there are some chances now.

In the recent years, Pakistan has been under greater scrutiny in several countries and institutions for its human rights situation, freedom of religion or belief, freedom of speech and freedom of expression, conscience and religion, but the epitome of discussions has been the blasphemy law.The international community believes that Pakistan is in contravention of its commitments under international human rights law, specifically the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

There’s very little hope for families whose loved ones have been suffering for years in prison, or were killed for crimes they never committed. Mashal Khan is a recent example while Asia Bibi’s suffering is nearing 3,000 days
Last year, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ERD) in its concluding observations expressed its concern “at the broad and vague definition”. The committee has also expressed its concern at “the disproportionate use of blasphemy laws against individuals belonging to ethnic and religious minorities”.

In July, Pakistan submitted its report after four years’ delay to the UN committee on the ICCPR. The Committee expressed its concerns that the rights enshrined in the Covenant are not being given full effect in the domestic legal order. Since Pakistan has ratified the ICCPR, Pakistan is bound to uphold the human rights enshrined within it and also align its domestic laws with international human rights law.

The Human Rights Committee in its concluding observations on Pakistan in July reiterated the concern of the international community about the reportedly discriminatory effect of the blasphemy laws, the high number of people falsely accused of blasphemy, and harassment, intimidation and threats faced by judges who hear blasphemy cases.

The world seems more concerned about the ongoing violation of human rights and misuse of the blasphemy law in Pakistan. Recently Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui suggested that parliament amend the law to impose the same punishment for those who falsely allege blasphemy as for those who commit the crime, but I am not sure if our politicians are going to take it seriously despite it being their duty to bring this law to parliament and pass legislation to stop its ruthless exploitation.

The writer is a freelance columnist

Courtesy: http://dailytimes.com.pk/opinion/06-Sep-17/revisiting-pakistans-blasphemy-law

Published in Daily Times, September 6th 2017.

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