London: (By Hannah Chowdhry and Juliet chowdhry) The National Assembly of Pakistan have ratified the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act 2023 at session on 17th January 2023.
The new laws now enhance the minimum punishment for those who insult the companions, wives and family members of Muhammed, from three years to 10 years, while adding a potential fine of 10 lakh Pak-rupees ( 1 million Pkr = £3489 as of 18th Jan).
In Pakistan, religious minorities and human rights defenders are concerned about a new amendment that have toughened existing blasphemy laws.
The Pakistan National Assembly unanimously passed the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act 2023, increasing the minimum punishment for those who insult friends, and family of Muhammed from three to 10 years along with a fine of Rs 1 million. It also makes the charge of blasphemy an offence for which bail is not automatic.
The statement of objectives of the bill read out during the Parliamentary session read as follows:
“…disrespecting the companion of the Prophet and other personalities not only promoted terrorism and disruption in the country but also hurt people from all walks of life.”
During a parliamentary debate about the new amendment, radical Muslim political leader Maulana Abdul Akbar Chitrali of the Jamaat-e-Islami, decried existing legislation for it’s feeble powers. he argued:
“The punishment for insulting a member of parliament is currently five years, but the punishment for insulting sacred companions is three years.
“This is an insult in itself.”
“May this bill be a cause of our salvation and may Allah grant our rulers the ability to implement the bill in letter and spirit.”
Zahid Akram Durrani, the deputy speaker, congratulated members of the national Assembly formaking a ‘historic decision.’
The Blasphemy laws in Pakistan were introduced in 1860 by the British to protect Muslim’s from the majority Hindus during the British Raj, they were enhanced in 1927. At the time the laws were a Statory offence that resulted in a 2 year imprisonment and/or a small fine.
After partition, Pakistan inherited the same laws which were then infamously sharpened under the regime of General Zia a military dictator. During this time that laws were heavily Islamized and the Ahmadi sect who believe in a prophet after Muhammed, were declared non-Muslim.
Many of the blasphemy laws are now non-bailable (do not receive automatic bail) and carry death or life sentences.
Political strategists blame the weak political position of Shehbaz Sharif, for the capitulation of his regime to the populist radical agenda.
It should be remembered how only a few years ago (2019) the whole country was brought to a standstill by hundreds-of-thousands of protestors, after the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered the release of Asia Bibi, Pakistan’s most famous former blasphemy law convict.
Evidence of how the blasphemy laws can be used to gain an advantage were captured in the video taken by Samian Mushtaq, the Christians head of security for a cargo-team at Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport. A Senior Civil Aviation Authority official has been suspended pending investigation into a recording of him issuing her with death threats and potential blasphemy allegations, over a parking dispute (which may have involved smuggling).
Christians suffer severe persecution in Pakistan and any tightening of blasphemy laws are likely to impact on them. Only last week a Christian guava farmer was shot dead by three Muslim men who were stopped when stealing and destroying his fruit.
Juliet Chowdhry, Trustee for British Asian Christian Association, said:
“The blasphemy laws of Pakistan have been a tool for discrimination and persecution since being Islamized in the 1980’s.
“From 1860 when the British introduced the first blasphemy law till 1985, only 10 blasphemy cases were registered
“However, from 1986 – 2015 633 cases had been registered and in 2020 alone 199 cases, illustrating how the laws have been weaponized.
In fact, evidence suggests the laws are misused by those seeking an advantage such as bigots and hard-liners, envious suitors and land-grabbers.
“The majority of cases are eventually quashed, but only after those accused have spent many years in prison and attended numerous appeal hearings.
“Christians make up an unhealthy percentage of blasphemy convicts and spend longer periods incarcerated than other victims of these draconian laws.
“The additional hardening of laws will make it only easier to convict innocent people.
“Years of dialogue with international bodies and governments and activism by internal human rights defenders, has done nothing to change Pakistan’s further radicalization.
“We continue to pray for change in Pakistan.”
Table taken from: On Trial: The Implementation of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws (click here).
Two leading politicians have been assassinated for calling for freedom for former blasphemy convict Asia Bibi (click here) and for calling for abrogation of Pakistan’s lethal blasphemy laws. Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer was killed by his own body guard in January 2011 (click here), and Shahbaz Bhatti two months later who was Pakistan’s only federal minister
Ooberfuse a Catholic band and BACA produced a song for slain Federal Minister Salamaan Taseer, read more (click here) and a freedom campaign song for Asia Bibi.
Lahore High Court Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti was shot in the head 3 times, by a Muslim men with thick long beard and wearing a white Islamic prayer cap, on October 10th 1997 (click here). the attack in his offices was apparently in retribution for acquitting Christians in a blasphemy case.
Tw0 Christian pastors were also notoriously shot dead on July 19 2010, after being acquitted of false blasphemy charges by Waris Pura Court.
Blasphemy victims are often killed extra-judicially. One of the most infamous incidents was the killing of Shama and Shahzad, who were burnt alive in a brick kiln in 2014, after the couple were stripped beaten with sticks and Shama was gang-raped before her husband and children (click here). BACA is still caring for the three orphans of Shama and Shahzad who narrowly escaped being killed themselves
Figures from the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) recorded that 537 persons were accused under blasphemy laws during 1986-2015, 633 (47%) were Muslims, 494 were Ahmadi (37%), 187 were Christian (14%) and 21 were Hindu (2%). Christians at the time made up 1.6% of Pakistan’s and Ahmadi’s around 0.2%. The report did not distinguish between Shi’a and Sunni sects of Islam.
It should be noted however that the Ahmadi community have been boycotting the census since 1974, to avoid persecution through identification. The UNHCR estimates that their are 4 Million Ahmadi in Pakistan a figure that would make them a larger minority than Christians (click here). At this point both minorities were facing great tribulation that was disproportionate to their demographic population. It can also bee seen that over 50% of blasphemy allegations were being laid against minorities.
Recent data from the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) indicates that an anomaly occurred during 2020 where 199 people were charged in one year of which 75% were Muslim, mostly Shi‘as (70%), followed by Ahmadis (20%), Sunnis (5%), Christians (3.5%), Hindus (1 per cent). The Ahmadis still rate higher than Christians, but both percentages have dropped significantly. I presume that a lack of contact with Christians due to a fear they were dirty and more likely to contract COVID-19 (a known Muslim perception), and a belief that COVID-19 was a punishment for ritually impure minorities resulted in these lower figures. The figures also reflect the tensions between the Shi’a and larger majority Sunni sect.
The ICJ reports states that at least 78 people have bene killed in blasphemy-based extra-judicial killings. Within that number are 42 Muslims, 23 Christians, 9 Ahmadis, 2 Hindus and 2 whose religion could not be ascertained. Of the 42 Muslims killed several were also converts to Christianity. Here we see that a Christian accused of blasphemy is significantly more likely to be killed than persecuted.