Blasphemy laws need reforming not toughening. By Nasir Saeed

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While observers from around the world are horrified to see how lives like that of Asia Bibi’s can be torn apart by our current blasphemy laws, many inside the country see things rather differently. They consider the already stringent laws too lenient.

Recently the Punjab Assembly unanimously passed a resolution asking the government to improve existing laws or make new ones to punish blasphemers more sternly. The resolution also calls for a central screening system, like that used in Saudi Arabia, to intercept blasphemous content on social media. It seems they would prefer a surveillance state to the chance that someone could type something that might cause offence.

The resolution suggests that the current blasphemy laws aren’t being enforced properly. Some people, they claim, are committing blasphemy under the guise of freedom of expression. According to the resolution, blasphemous content is available online, while blasphemous books are being brought into the country.

They seem unconcerned with the major problem with the laws as they stand. That the laws are being used as a tool for persecution and oppression, especially against the religious minorities. That they can be used as an excuse to intimidate and threaten religious minorities and justify violent attacks and arson on their homes and places of prayer.

There has been a continuous increase in the registering of blasphemy cases since the law was amended in 1986 by the military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq. But that doesn’t mean that blasphemy is on the rise. The testimonies of many innocent men and women suggest another reason. More and more people are learning that this is an easy, cheap and quick way to settle personal scores against their enemies, especially if their adversaries aren’t Muslim and are less likely to be listened to in court.

Because of inaction from government, extrajudicial or vigilante killings have increased. Government fails to bring the perpetrators to justice. This encourages the hate-mongering mullahs and citizens to take the law into their own hands and justify killing in the name of religion. it undermines the courts and the justice system as well as tearing the lives of innocent families apart.

When in 2011 Mumtaz Qadri killed the then governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer in broad daylight for supporting Asia Bibi, he was treated like a hero by many. After Qadri was convicted and executed an elaborate shrine and mosque were erected in his honour on the outskirts of Islamabad.

Later that year, Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in parliament, was killed for calling for reforms to the blasphemy law. Several people including Sherry Rehman were threatened with death and silenced.

These are surely the sort of things that would scandalise anyone, be they Christian or Muslim.

Though voices have largely been silent from inside the country, we have seen the international community repeatedly call for repeal or for appropriate changes to be made to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to stop their terrible abuse. Yet we are supposed to believe that the only problem with the laws is their leniency. And it’s not just the Punjab Assembly calling for such changes.

In 2018, Hammad Azhar, the then Minister of State for Revenue, made a similar request, presenting the Prevention of Electronic Crimes(Amendment) Bill 2018 to make the blasphemy law harsher by adding new offences.

Blasphemy laws are inconsistent with universal human rights, several western countries have already removed them from their statute books

The Senate human rights committee has suggested that someone making a false accusation of blasphemy should face a similar punishment to someone found guilty of blasphemy. It may not be the best solution, but it would at least encourage someone planning to make a false accusation to think again. The committee also recommended that anyone accusing somebody of blasphemy should come up with two witnesses to corroborate his claim. Government ignored both the suggestions.

When vicious vigilante attacks take place following false allegations, there are assurances that the killers would be brought to justice. However, there doesn’t seem to be any will to do that.

In 2009, after a bloody attack in Gojra where eight Christians were burnt alive and hundreds were injured, a one-man tribunal was set up to investigate the incident and to prepare recommendations. The report was handed over to the then chief minister Shehbaz Sharif in October 2009, seeking an immediate implementation of the recommendations, but todate, nothing has been done in that regard. Instead, there are continued efforts to make this law more stringent through parliament.

Since then several innocent men and women have been killed by vigilantes. The twenty-five-year-old Mashal Khan who was studying at the Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan was lynched by his fellow students. The Christian couple Shama and Shahzad were burnt alive in a brick kiln furnace. That such mob brutality is possible suggests something is wrong with the current laws and their implementation, not that they are too lenient.

Meanwhile, dozens languish in jails, often with a death sentence hanging over them, all based on the flimsiest of allegations and little or nothing in the way of solid evidence.

Wajih-ul-Hassan was released by the Supreme Court after almost eighteen years in jail. The prosecution failed to provide any substantial evidence against him. Eighteen years for a piece of hearsay, yet nobody is willing to express their regret, or reform the justice system.

Asia Bibi was released last year after nine years, while there are several victims of this law awaiting their trial.

Though Pakistani politicians have completely failed to bring the issue of the misuse of the blasphemy laws to parliament, international human rights organisations seem more concerned and regularly raise their voices against the abusive implementation of this law.Western politicians often speak against the misuse of the law; even the European parliament, House of Commons and House of Lords have discussed the impact of the blasphemy law and have repeatedly called on the Pakistani government to reform this law. But it is all falling on deaf ears and, instead, the present government has twice discussed making this law more stringent instead of listening to the international community and stopping the killing of innocent people in the name of religion.

Blasphemy laws are inconsistent with universal human rights, several western countries have already removed them from their statute books. Pakistan needs to follow suit in spite of vested interests that argue in favour of more laws, not fewer. Pakistan is in the top five countries where the blasphemy law is regularly misused. Government must understand that there is no place for such a law in the 21st century.

The writer is a freelance columnist

Courtesy: Daily Times

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