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From bad to worse

Published Mar 17, 2015 05:44pm

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Lots of innocent people are behind bars. Photo Courtesy Ayesha Vellani/White Star
Lots of innocent people are behind bars. Photo Courtesy Ayesha Vellani/White Star

Blasphemy laws have frequently captured the attention of the local and international media for the apparent flaws of their form and procedure. Having served the less-than-bona fide political needs of the authoritarian regime of their sponsor General Ziaul Haq and later as a major tool in the hands of religious groups to torment their religious, sectarian and political rivals, these laws continue to be a cause of grave concern for the human rights activists and advocates of religious freedom.

Though most critics of the blasphemy laws directly blame Zia for their introduction in the form they exist now, it was, in fact, his Majlis-e-Shoora in 1980s that made them a part of the law books. The laws as adopted originally, however, did not provide for mandatory death penalty for blaspheming about the Prophet of Islam. In 1990, theFederal Shariat Court, a superior religious court also set up by Zia, decided on a constitutional petition filed by lawyer Ismail Qureshi that “the penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet … is death and nothing else”. The court also directed the then government of prime minister Nawaz Sharif to make the necessary legal changes in this regard. Initially, the government filed an appeal against the verdict at the Supreme Court’s Shariat Appellate Bench but later withdrew it. Qureshi claimed in his book that Sharif withdrew the appeal on his request. In any case, the withdrawal allowed theFederal Shariat Courtverdict to become final and legally binding.

This is, however, not to say that blasphemy laws did not exist on the statute books before Haq. They existed but they were neither specific to Muslim religious personalities and Muslim religious texts nor did they carry such stringent punishments as they do now. Their origins lie in 1920s, when in a number of cases inPunjaballeged blasphemers were killed by young men inspired to act against them under religious fervour. The purpose of the original legislation in the British colonial era was to cater to the Muslim religious feelings that were hurt by the incidents of blasphemy and to avoid the repetition of incidents in which people would kill an alleged blasphemer without any recourse to law. These laws provided for punishing “deliberate and malicious acts intended” to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs. Originally these laws were not known as blasphemy laws; they were just part of the penal code. It was only under Haq that they acquired the new moniker and omitted the mention to deliberation, maliciousness and intention.

Changes made into these laws since the 1980s, were inspired by sectarian reasons as well as the rising tide of Islamisation of Pakistan under Zia. “Sequence of interventions in the Pakistan Penal Code should be kept in mind while discussing the blasphemy laws. First of five amendments [in the blasphemy laws] were made in 1980 when sectarian tensions were rife in the country, owing to the Shia-Sunni conflicts over the collection of ushr and zakat by the government,” says Peter Jacob, an activist for religious liberties. This amendment extended the scope of blasphemy laws by making them applicable also on those who insulted the wives of the Prophet, his family and any of the first four caliphs.

“The second intervention was made in 1982, which provided for life imprisonment for defiling the Quran. The amendment also allowed that anyone accused of defiling the Quran could be arrested without a warrant. In 1984, the Zia regime institutionalised the segregation of Ahmadis, barring them from calling themselves Muslims and observing religious and social Islamic practices,” says Jacob. Anyone found violating these bars was to be tried under the blasphemy laws. “In a 1986 amendment, death was added to life imprisonment as a penalty for blaspheming about the Prophet of Islam,” he adds.

The third intervention in 1986 provided that blasphemy about the Prophet of Islam could be punished either with death penalty or life imprisonment. In the original draft of this amendment, Qureshi and a Jamaat-e-Islami legislator Apa Nisar Fatima had proposed death penalty alone but the ministry of law amended their bill by adding the alternative of life imprisonment. It was this change by the law ministry that Qureshi challenged in front of the Federal Shariat Courtin 1987 and got a verdict in line with the original draft.

The consequences of the all these amendments have been immense, to say the least. Since 1986, more than 1,000 cases of blasphemy have been registered inPakistanas compared to almost none in the preceding years. More than half of these cases have been filed against Muslims and at least 39 people accused of blasphemy have lost their lives to vigilante violence.