The state of blasphemy in 2013 (Pakistan)

It is not out of place to mention that the doctrine of secularism should also be explained and discussed publicly so that the general public realise that atheism and secularism are two different doctrines and have no connection whatsoever

 The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan recently published its ‘State of Human Rights in 2013’, which covers various legal and social issues in Pakistan. It has five chapters and all of them are worth reading. For the purpose of this article, I shall be looking into chapter three, which articulates information regarding fundamental freedoms while the last half of the chapter sheds light on the state of blasphemy in 2013. After reading chapter three, I came to know that 41 persons in Pakistan were charged under the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) chapter on offences relating to religion.

The chapter includes sections 295 to 298 C of the PPC. The 41 persons included 14 Christians, 17 Ahmedis and nine Muslims while the religion[s] of two of the accused is unknown.

Eight of these people were charged under 298 C of the PPC, which covers desecration of the Quran and of these eight, three were women. The eight included three Muslims, four Christians and one Ahmedi.The State of Human Rights states that in December 2013, three people were sentenced to die after their convictions in two blasphemy cases.

In one case, Riaz Ahmed, aged 34, and Ijaz Ahmed, aged 38, residents of Haroonabad in Punjab’s Bahawalpur district, were sentenced to die. They were accused of claiming in 2011 that they had seen God. The judge also fined each of them Rs 100,000. Two Christian men who were arrested for committing blasphemy were acquitted this year by the court.

The allegation was that Barkat Masih, aged 56, refused to hand over the duplicate keys of a shrine where he worked as a sweeper. Barkat’s lawyer said that the local lawyer community had been vocal against him and had threatened to kill him for defending Barkat Masih. Another Christian man, Younis Masih, who was arrested by the police in September 2005 in Lahore on charges of blasphemy and sentenced to death in May 2007, was acquitted on appeal by the Lahore High Court due to lack of evidence. His lawyer successfully argued that there was no direct evidence available on record, which made Younis liable for committing blasphemy. The case was made on hearsay, which is not admissible under criminal law.

Another interesting incident occurred in 2013 where a cleric, Khalid Jadoon, accused a 14-year-old girl of committing blasphemy by burning pages of Quranic verses. However, it soon came to light that Khalid Jadoon tampered with the evidence and was himself charged with the same offence by the police The court acquitted him due to lack of direct evidence against him. In February 2013, south Punjab police registered a case against Sherry Rehman, former ambassador to the US. The petitioner from Multan asked the sessions court of Multan under Section 22-A and 22-B of the CrPC to register a First Information Report (FIR) against Sherry Rehman for speaking against the blasphemy laws while on a live television channel. The petitioner unsuccessfully sought a direction from the sessions court and then the Lahore High Court (LHC) to direct the police to register a case against Sherry Rehman. 

Most blasphemy cases in Pakistan have been politically motivated and have also directly undermined the minorities. It is further observable that clerics and radicals were among those who brought cases of blasphemy forward after fabricating evidence and facts. For instance, in the case of the 14-year-old girl Rimsha Masih, it was Khalid Jadoon, the cleric, who actually fabricated the evidence and concocted facts just to implicate Rimsha in a blasphemy case. Such tactics have always been used in Pakistan to threaten minorities, especially Ahmedis and Christians. Those accused of blasphemy who were acquitted by the courts, usually fled Pakistan or were assassinated on their release from jail. For instance, Rimsha fled Pakistan and settled in Canada after threats from radicals and clerics. In Pakistan, a person accused of blasphemy is assumed to be guilty. This is unacceptable and alarming since mere allegations do not represent an offence in criminal law. In late December 2013, a senior pilot of state airline PIA went on leave after being accused of blasphemy for allegedly disrespecting the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). The president of the employees association complained that the pilot had used derogatory words about the kalma or Islamic declaration of faith and the Prophet (PBUH). A committee set up to probe the matter submitted its findings to the PIA chairman. The finding of the committee was made public but it submitted that the pilot was guilty of blasphemy. The pilot went on leave for his safety and his friends suggested he leave Pakistan. 

In light of the submissions above, one may conclude that blasphemy laws require reforms to prevent abuse by opportunists and clerics. The need to reform the blasphemy laws should be explained to the people of Pakistan by engaging religious scholars and the general public. I further contend that codification of personal laws for Hindus and Sikhs should be a priority and this must be done after consulting the communities. It is not out of place to mention that the doctrine of secularism should also be explained and discussed publicly so that the general public realise that atheism and secularism are two different doctrines and have no connection whatsoever. Religion in Pakistan is being misused to gain political power.

Blasphemy laws are faulty, due to which many innocent people languish in violent and dirty jails. I agree with the Senate Standing Committee on National Harmony which, in April 2013, met to discuss stern punishments for people making false blasphemy accusations. The committee suggested that the punishment for falsely accusing someone of blasphemy should be the same as that for committing blasphemy. Last year, a meeting of the National Harmony Committee and the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) declared that section 194 of the PPC defines a punishment for lodging false cases with the police and hence there was no need to amend the blasphemy laws; this seems to some extent correct.

The need is to discourage people from bringing forward blasphemy cases without evidence. Finally, I connect blasphemy cases with a lack of tolerance in Pakistani society due to which blasphemy cases frequently appear in Pakistan. Pakistan can only get rid of its religious extremism and fundamentalism if it embraces secularism, otherwise I am afraid the state of Pakistan will not survive and will be torn by violence and fundamentalism.

 Source: Daily Time