Blasphemy laws in Pakistan Violation of International Human Rights
The Supreme Court of Pakistan has given the verdict (October 31st, 2018) of acquittal and immediate release of a poor Christian woman, Asiya Bibi, mother of five, who was accused of blasphemy in 2009 on the basis of lack of concrete evidence against her. She was sentenced to death in 2010 on the charges of blasphemy. Her only crime was that she had offered water to the male Muslim labourers in the farm fields. They refused taking water from her hands because she was a kafira. She protested and explained the sanctity of her faith. Pakistan has lost the precious lives of the sitting Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, and a sitting minister, Shahbaz Bhatti to the extremists.
The countrywide violent protests and riots broke out, paralyzing life in major cities.
My country Pakistan has been a hostage to a particular extremist mindset for the past forty years. Despite the fact that no religious party has ever been elected to the government, these small extremist groups have the capacity to jeopardize the lives of millions and dictate the State whatever they want to.
1n 1979, General Zia, a military dictator initiated the process of Islamization of laws in Pakistan. The Constitution of Pakistan 1973 had been suspended and he was introducing the laws under Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) of 1979. In 1987, General Zia Islamized the blasphemy laws, initially incorporated in Indian Penal Code of XLV of 1860 by the British colonial regime in India. Originally, section 295 was presented which was related to destroying, defiling and damaging the places of worship or any object that would amount to insult to ANY religion. The violation of these laws was met with the sentence of two years of imprisonment or fine, or both. Section 295 reads: "Whoever destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to their religion, shall be punished with imprisonment ... for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both" (Indian Penal Code 1860).
In 1987, General Zia added the following sections in Pakistan Penal Code, 1860, to Islamize the already existing blasphemy laws: section 295 A, 295 B, 295 C, 298 A, 298 B, 298 C.
Section 295-C imposes death penalty on those who use derogatory remarks against Prophet Muhammad PBUH. Section 298-C further criminalizes Ahmedis for just propagating their faith and claiming themselves as Muslims.
In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that the blasphemy laws protect all religions, but the public in general and the authorities interpret these laws as only protecting Islam.
In 2010, Pakistan agreed to ratify International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 1966, in lieu of getting GSP plus status. At the time of ratification, Pakistan was reluctant to agree to various provisions of ICCPR including Article 18 and 19 that provide sturdy protections to the freedom of religion and expression. In 2011, under huge pressure from international community, Pakistan withdrew most of its reservations to this Convention including article 18 and 19.
The Constitution of Pakistan also guarantees fundamental rights to ALL the citizens of Pakistan and these fundamental rights are protected under Article 184 (3) and 199(1) of the constitution.
These anti-blasphemy laws are not only against the Article 18 and 19 of ICCPR, 1966, but also go against, in principle, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 1948 and United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination based on the religion and belief proclaimed by General Assembly in 1981.
These notorious blasphemy laws have an extremely disproportionate affects on the minority communities. Hardly any Muslim has ever been accused or tried of blasphemy charges in the court of law. There have been 702 cases registered against minorities, which equates to the 52% of the total cases against 4% of the total population (OHRC). These laws continue to sustain an environment of intolerance and discrimination in Pakistan.
In 2012, a minor girl, Rimsha Masih, suffering from Down's syndrome was accused of blasphemy (she was particularly accused of burning Holy Quran - of which there was no proof). She was the first female child to be the victim of this law. Islamabad High Court acquitted Rimsha on the grounds of absence of concrete evidence and lack of mens rea. After acquittal and release, she could not live in her homeland just because she feared her life in the hands of some religious fanatics. The State of Pakistan could not protect a minor differently able girl and she had to migrate to Canada with her entire family.
Pakistan's blasphemy laws violate not only the international human rights laws - most of the conventions to which Pakistan is a signatory, but also the basic injunctions of Quran and Sunnah. Islam is the religion of peace and tolerance. The literal meaning of the word "Islam" is peace and safety. How can anyone commit violence in the name of Allah and Prophet (PBUH) who, in his entire lifetime, had always forgave his worst enemies and fiendish abusers.
These notorious laws encourage and provoke the general public to take law into their own hands that is extremely dangerous to peace and security of the whole community. One important point that is not highlighted in this whole saga is that even under Section 295 (C) PPC, ONLY the State can take the cognizance of this offence. Mob violence is itself a crime against the State. Mob cannot decide the fate of anyone, let alone a blasphemer.
The State of Pakistan, in order to guarantee equal protection and fundamental rights to the minorities, should reform and amend the blasphemy laws, so that they cannot be used against the innocent people belonging to any community. This country would be a happy place if we all become more forgiving and tolerant. We have to build a more pluralistic society, for all the beauty lies in diversity.