Pak­istan blas­phemy laws in­creas­ingly dan­ger­ous

Pak­ista­nis re­ceiv­ing text mes­sages warn­ing against shar­ing “blas­phe­mous” con­tent on­line

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Henry Sre­brnik Henry Sre­brnik is a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land.

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.

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