According to the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) 187 Christians have been accused under Pakistan’s various “blasphemy” laws since 1987. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has vigorously condemned these cruel laws, trials and punishments in a 60-page report published in early November.
The report calls on the Pakistan government to “repeal all blasphemy laws … or amend them substantially so that they are consistent with international standards on freedom of expression; freedom of thought, conscience or religion; and equal protection of the law”.
This table put together by the ICJ includes all of the offences related to religion in the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), popularly known as the “blasphemy” laws.
|295||Injuring or defiling place of worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class||Up to two years imprisonment, or fine, or both|
|295-A||Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs||Up to ten years imprisonment, or fine, or both|
|295-B||Defiling the Quran||Life imprisonment|
|295-C||Defiling the name of Muhammad||Death sentence|
|296||Disturbing religious assembly||Up to one year imprisonment, or fine, or both|
|297||Trespassing on burial places||Up to one year imprisonment, or fine, or both|
|298||Uttering words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings||Up to one year imprisonment, or fine, or both|
|298-A||Use of derogatory remarks in respect of holy personages||Up to three years imprisonment, or fine, or both|
|298-B||Misuse of epithets, descriptions and titles, etc., reserved for certain holy personages or places||Up to three years imprisonment and fine|
|298-C||Ahmadis who “directly or indirectly” pose as a Muslim||Up to three years imprisonment and fine|
Abusing the blasphemy laws to falsely accuse
The “blasphemy laws” have frequently been misused to abuse the country’s Christians, who are often falsely accused of blasphemy by enemies who use it as a way of settling a personal grudge or to grab property. In a high-profile trial, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa said on 27 October that, “It is an unfortunate fact which cannot be disputed that in many cases registered in respect of the offence of blasphemy, false allegations are levelled for extraneous purposes.”
The NCJP reports that, as well as nearly 200 Christians, 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadis and 21 Hindus have also been accused of ”blasphemy” offences since 1987. Given that the religious minorities account for an extremely small percentage of the Muslim-majority population, the number of Christians and members of other minority religions accused is massively disproportionate to the number of Muslims accused, although the number of accused Muslims is higher.
The ICJ vehemently urges the abolition of the mandatory death penalty that is included in Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code for “defiling the name” of Muhammad. Although the Code itself dictates two possible punishments for this offence (namely, life imprisonment or death), the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) in 1990 ruled that the government should remove the option for life imprisonment from 295-C. The government did not do so and the “life imprisonment” option remained in ink on the statute book. However, the influence and status of FSC rulings in Pakistan is such that this option ceased to be legally valid and since then everyone found guilty under Section 295-C has been sentenced to death. On the other hand, no one has actually been executed for this crime but are normally left languishing in prison as they await an appeal; their conviction is eventually overturned or their sentence commuted. So a kind of legal limbo has existed, in which the FSC’s 1990 ruling is followed in practice but not added to the statute books.
No deliberate intent to blaspheme necessary for a conviction
Another recommendation listed in the ICJ report is that the government “expressly include the requirement of proof of deliberate and malicious intent in all offences related to religion … particularly 295-C”.
Section 295-C excludes the need for mens rea (literally, “guilty mind”). This means that someone can commit an offence without any intention and without realising what they are doing.
The ICJ reviewed 25 cases of high court appeals for Section 295-C and discovered that in the majority of these cases (60%), the appellants were acquitted after the courts ruled that the accusations made against them had been “either fabricated, or made maliciously for personal or political reasons”.
Even after the acquittal of the accused, the ICJ discovered that no charges were made against those who made the false allegations, despite the fact that there are laws to criminalise perjury.
Extrajudicial murders common
A simple accusation is enough to make anyone accused of “blasphemy” vulnerable to extrajudicial murder as zealous Muslims take the law into their own hands: 53 people have been subject to such unlawful killings since 1986.
A Christian couple, Shehzad Masih and his pregnant wife Shama Bibi, were beaten and burned alive in a brick kiln by a Muslim mob in November 2014 after Shama was accused of burning pages of the Quran and throwing them in a rubbish bin. However, local reports said that Shama was illiterate and had no way of knowing what she was burning.
The ICJ noted that in many cases, those accused of “blasphemy” were attacked while being held, some of them killed. In some instances, it was the police themselves who were responsible for the attacks.
The report published by the ICJ condemns the lack of fair trial offered to those accused of “blasphemy”. It urges Pakistani authorities to allow anyone accused of a blasphemy offence to be able to apply for bail pending a trial. It also asks that the offences be made non-cognisable, meaning that instead of having free reign to arrest and investigate, police would need a warrant to arrest someone suspected of offending against the laws and that court permission would be required for an investigation.
The ICJ found that judges often show “demonstrable bias and prejudice against defendants”. According to the prevailing Pakistan Code of Criminal Procedure, “only a Muslim Presiding judge shall hear cases registered under Section 295-C of the Penal Code in the court of first instance”.
It also found that judges and lawyers acting in blasphemy cases face intimidation and harassment, hindering the process of fair trial for the accused.
Criticising the “blasphemy laws”
In a landmark statement for freedom of religion in Pakistan, the Pakistan Supreme Court said on Monday (5 October) that criticising the country’s notoriously harsh blasphemy laws is not blasphemy. Political figures in Pakistan’s recent history who opposed or attempted to amend the blasphemy laws have been violently pressured into backtracking, and several have been killed.