Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Some Brief Thoughts on the Blasphemy Law

January 4 marks the first death anniversary of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer. He was assassinated last year by one of his bodyguards for daring to speak out in favor of Aasia Bibi, a destitute Christian woman sentenced to death under Pakistan's blasphemy laws.

The aftermath of Taseer's assassination brought out some of the worst in the country. His murderer Mumtaz Qadri was feted by mobs showering him with rose petals; lawyers promised to defend him pro-bono; the judge presiding over the case was forced to flee the country after sentencing Qadri to death.

Pervez Hoodbhoy has written an excellent article recounting these events and also the circumstances that help create an environment where such behavior is not just deemed acceptable but in fact lauded. Of particular interest is the recordings of a few hundred sermons given in mosques across the country that are linked to in that article. These are also available as transcripts in Urdu and English, and serve as quite a representative sample of the filth that people are exposed to in the name of religion.

My own focus here is just to put down some thoughts about the blasphemy law that were formulated during discussions with people last year, some of whom actively supported the law.

While I would like for the blasphemy law to be repealed completely, realistically this seems impossible given the current climate. At the very least, though, certain changes that have been suggested by the same people responsible for coming up with the law should be made.

Things that should change about the blasphemy law (section 295-C):

1) Under the current law, there is no provision for if someone is falsely accused of blasphemy. Due to which, currently the law is often invoked to settle personal grudges, for example falsely accusing a non-Muslim of blasphemy. Or even turned into a business, by taking advantage of vulnerable groups. Making it a serious offense to make false accusations under this law should help deter such activity. One suggestion has been to make the minimum punishment for false accusation the same as that for blasphemy itself.

2) There needs to be proof of intent i.e. the person actually wants to blaspheme. And the burden of this proof should be on the person making the accusation. The current language is very ambiguous on this. To account for stupid cases where for example a doctor was charged with blasphemy because he threw his business card carrying his name (Mohammed) in the trash.

3) All blasphemy cases should be heard by the Federal Shariat Court. Lower sessions courts should not have the authority to preside over these cases. Moreover, the policeman in charge of registering the case should at least be a district level officer, not your average SHO (station house officer) as is the case at the moment. This is partly to make the adjudication in these cases more centralized but also because judges in lower courts are often targeted by mobs to the point that a fair trial is impossible.

All of the above are a combination of changes that have been proposed by the Council of Islamic Ideology, and Advocate Ismail Qureshi, the person in charge of introducing the law in question to the Pakistan Penal Code.

Another point I'd like to make is that the stated reason for introducing Section 295-C was to counter vigilante justice. The fear was that in the absence of any laws, private citizens would take matters into their own hands and kill those accused of blasphemy.

Needless to say, insofar as protecting the accused is concerned, the law hasn't worked. Nobody has ever been executed under this law i.e. on court order. However, since this law's introduction, countless people have been killed extra-judicially, in the very manner that this law was intended to prevent.

If the intention is indeed to curb vigilante justice then it's pretty obvious that having a blasphemy law in place makes no difference. Instead people who take the law into their own hands need to be made an example of. The reality is that a great number of people idolize guys like Mumtaz Qadri and don't think they've done anything wrong.

  1. Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code
  2. Council of Islamic Ideology Recommends Death Penalty for Misuse of 295-C, Daily Express, January 13, 2011 (In Urdu)
  3. IA Rehman, The Blasphemy Law, Dawn, November 25, 2010
  4. IA Rehman, The Blasphemy Law Revisited, Originally published in Dawn, July 29, 2010

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