Pakistan blasphemy laws increasingly dangerous
Pakistanis receiving text messages warning against sharing “blasphemous” content online
The Christian community in Pakistan earlier this year observed Easter by confining their celebrations to church premises and homes, amid tightened security. Over 70 people were killed in Lahore last year as a suicide bomber blew himself up on Easter Sunday.
Christians make up less than two per cent of Pakistan’s 190 million people, who are overwhelmingly Muslims. The majority of Christians are very poor. Many of them are converts from low caste Hindus, who embraced Christianity in the hope of better status, but most end up sweeping the streets and cleaning clogged up gutters.
Yet this community has been the object of attacks from intolerant extremists, in many cases making use of Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy laws.
Recently, for example, Jacqueline Sultan, a Christian lawyer defending people charged with blasphemy and helping victims of forced conversion and marriage received a threatening letter warning that she would be killed if she did not stop her work.
The offences relating to religion were first codified by India’s British rulers in 1860, and were expanded in 1927. Pakistan inherited these laws when it came into existence after the partition of India in 1947.
Between 1980 and 1986, a number of clauses were added to the laws by the military government of General Zia-ul Haq, a devout Sunni Muslim.
They carry a potential death sentence for anyone who insults Islam. Even illiterate children have been charged.
Critics say they have been used to unfairly target minorities, and this is confirmed by data provided by National Commission for Justice and Peace, which has documented the charges against those who have been accused under various clauses of the laws since 1987.
Those accused of blasphemy may be subject to harassment, threats, and attacks. Over 60 people have been murdered before their respective trials were even over.
When Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, a prominent critic of the law, was assassinated by his bodyguard in 2011, Pakistan was divided, with some hailing his killer as a hero.
A month after Salman Taseer was killed, Religious Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who spoke out against the laws, was shot dead in Islamabad, underlining the threat faced by critics of the law.
Of late, extremists have accused secular activists, bloggers, journalists and others of blasphemy. On April 13, Mashal Khan, a 26-year-old Muslim student, was shot and beaten to death by fellow students at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, who had accused him of blasphemy. It was apparently at the instigation of university authorities in retaliation for Khan criticizing official policies. Over 20 people were arrested, including a number of university employees.
There has been a greater level of sympathy for Mashal Khan than for other victims accused of blasphemy partly because the police made it clear there was no substance to the allegations against him.
Still, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif waited two days before issuing a strongly worded statement saying he was “shocked and saddened by the senseless display of mob justice.”
A month earlier Sharif had called blasphemy “an unpardonable sin,” while the Federal Investigation Agency took out newspaper advertisements asking the public to inform them of anyone involved in blasphemous activities online.
Pakistanis also began receiving text messages from the government warning them against sharing or uploading “blasphemous” content online.
On June 10, a court sentenced Taimoor Raza, a Shiite man, to death for committing blasphemy. He was found guilty of making derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad, his wives and others on Facebook and WhatsApp.
Raza confessed to being a member of a banned Shiite group, Sipah-e-Muhammad, which had been outlawed in 2001 along with the Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.