No case highlights the fervour and frustration associated with blasphemy more than that of Asia Noreen (better known as Asia Bibi), the Pakistani Christian woman who was falsely accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death in 2010.
Throughout Bibi’s protracted legal case, the worst instincts of certain sections of Pakistani society were brought to the fore and played out in national and international media as Islamist groups staged violent demonstrations calling for her execution on multiple occasions, even after her conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2018. Following a nine-year ordeal, Asia Bibi and her family were eventually taken to Canada to start a new life, but for many other victims their fate is less hopeful, and they are left languishing under long jail sentences, prolonged when cases are adjourned without hearing.
Pakistan’s blasphemy legislation is crude in its application and consequence. The laws were first introduced to British administered India in 1860 to prevent religious communalism and intra-religious conflict. They were codified within the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to protect places of worship and sacred objects from defilement (Section 295); religious assemblies from disturbance (Section 296); funeral remains and burial sites from malicious trespass (Section 297); and religious feelings of any person from deliberate insult (Section 298). Pakistan inherited the laws after Partition, which separated the Indian sub-continent to create India and Pakistan in 1947.
In 1980, the blasphemy laws were expanded to criminalise making derogatory remarks against Islamic personages. In 1982, Section 295-B was added, criminalising the desecration of the Qur’an. Section 295-C was added in 1986, which made derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad a criminal offence punishable by death or life imprisonment.
From the introduction of the laws in 1927 until 1986, fourteen blasphemy cases were reported, but by 2017 the number had increased to over 1,500.
The “weaponisation” of blasphemy
The National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a human rights organisation based in Pakistan, found that a total of 776 Muslims, 505 Ahmadis, 229 Christians and 30 Hindus were accused under the blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2018.
What is clear is that the blasphemy laws are not a deterrent. They have become a weapon of revenge used indiscriminately against Muslims and non-Muslims in situations that arise due to petty grievances, jealousy and business rivalry, under the guise of preventing insults to religion.
The former Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was a vocal critic of the blasphemy laws. In 2011 he said: “The blasphemy law is not a God-made law. It’s a man-made law… it’s a law which gives an excuse to extremists and reactionaries to target weak people and minorities.”
Taseer was killed by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, in 2011. During Qadri’s trial for Taseer’s murder, the Supreme Court noted that “The majority of blasphemy cases are based on false accusations stemming from property issues or other personal or family vendettas rather than genuine instances of blasphemy, and they inevitably lead to mob violence against the entire community.”
A few months after Taseer’s murder, Shahbaz Bhatti, Federal Minister for Minorities, who advocated for reform of the blasphemy laws was assassinated in an attack claimed by the Taliban.
The accusation is a punishment in itself
The impact of a false accusation is like a death knell with far reaching consequences for the accused and their families. In recent decades there have been numerous cases of accusations, assassinations, lynching, intimidation and censorship. In response to accusations, and due to the emotive and sensitive nature of blasphemy, violent mobs blinded by vigilante justice have forced individuals into hiding, attacked communities and burned down homes.
In 2013 Sawan Masih, a Christian from Joseph Colony in Punjab, was accused by a Muslim friend of insulting the Prophet Mohammed during a conversation. A local mosque broadcasted the accusation, prompting a 3000-strong mob to attack the Christian neighbourhood of Joseph Colony. Almost 200 homes were torched and hundreds of families were displaced.
Sawan Masih was sentenced to death in 2014, he is still in prison. During his seventh appeal which took place on 17 September 2019 in the Lahore High Court, Mr Masih’s lawyer informed CSW that the judge, Justice Mazhar Ali Akbar Naqvi referred the case to the Anti-Terrorism court (ATC). During proceedings his lawyer argued that the case had been referred to the ATC once before, where the presiding judge had flatly refused to it hear the case and reverted it to the high court. Justice Navqi insisted the case would have to go to the ATC and that he would only hear a high court appeal if the ATC judge again decides not to hear the case. Many blasphemy cases like Sawan Masih’s suffer delays where proceedings are repeatedly postponed or referred to the ATC and become stuck in the legal system, causing additional trauma and delaying justice for victims.
In some cases the mob is so stirred up that targets of blasphemy accusations are killed before allegations are even investigated.
Shama and Shezad Masih were a Christian couple who worked as bonded labourers in a brick kiln outside of Lahore. In November 2014 Shama Masih was falsely accused of burning pages of the Qur’an, which led to the horrific lynching of her and her husband by a violent mob before any investigation took place.
In April 2017, Mashal Khan, a student at Abdul Wali Khan University in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was brutally beaten and killed by a mob including fellow students and staff on his university campus. He had been falsely accused of posting blasphemous content online, and was murdered before the allegation was investigated. Though his death shocked the nation and reignited the debate to amend the blasphemy laws, there was no change to the legislation.
For numerous victims who are imprisoned, the judicial process can take years while they await trial. In July 2013 Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Masih, a Christian couple from Gojra, were sentenced to death under Section 295-C for sending blasphemous text messages to local cleric Muhammad Hussein. The couple are illiterate and unable to text in English; they have always maintained their innocence. Shagufta is being held in Multan’s Central Jail, where Asia Bibi was kept, while Shafqat, who is paralysed and confined to a wheelchair, is 150 miles away in the Faisalabad District Jail. Their case has suffered repeated postponements as they await an appeal in the Lahore High Court.
Such delays occur because of the palpable fear surrounding hearings. Many lawyers and judges are reluctant to take on cases due to threats, attacks, and reprisals against their families, and even targeted killings.
In 2013 Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer at Multan University, was charged with posting blasphemous material on Facebook. His first lawyer quit after threats from conservative colleagues. His second lawyer, human rights activist Rashid Rehman, was threatened during a hearing to drop the case by opposing lawyers. Despite Mr Rehman’s complaints to the police and the district bar association, nothing was done. He was shot dead in his office in May 2014. Mr Hafeez’s current lawyer, Asad Jamal, admits that his case has been severely hampered by repeated delays.
The politics of blasphemy
The increasing politicisation of the laws has normalised their misuse and stalled attempts to amend legislation. Playing blasphemy politics has been a useful tool for former and present governments, whose support of the laws remain unwavering. Many perceive the blasphemy laws as brutal and highly divisive, often used to victimise religious minorities and human rights activists.
Online space provides a refuge where activists can voice concerns about human rights violations and hold the government and military to account; however that space has become increasingly contested, with growing restrictions on freedom of expression and the policing of social media for content which may be deemed blasphemous.
In March 2017 former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called blasphemy an “unpardonable offence,” directing the government at the time to bring anyone responsible for sharing blasphemous content on social media to justice. This step was seen by civil society as an attempt to silence dissenting voices and compromise freedom of expression.
During his 2018 election campaign, current Prime Minister Imran Khan used the issue of blasphemy to capitalise on the vote bank of the religious right. At an address to Muslim leaders in Islamabad he proclaimed: “We are standing with Article 295c and will defend it.” This uneasy relationship between the government and it’s pandering to the religious right further complicates the issue of blasphemy.
In a visit to Pakistan in 2012 former UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers Gabriela Knaul noted: “These laws serve the vested interests of extremist religious groups and are not only contrary to the Constitution of Pakistan, but also to international human rights norms, in particular those relating to non-discrimination and freedom of expression and opinion.”
This was demonstrated when Khadim Hussain Rizvi, blasphemy proponent and the leader of the Islamist group, Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), instigated protests against the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Asia Bibi’s death sentence in October 2018. Rizvi called for the judges who acquitted Asia Bibi to be killed, and encouraged the army to rebel. His supporters took to the streets, blocking major roads, causing disruption and millions of pounds worth of damage. The three-day nationwide demonstrations ended when the TLP signed an agreement with the Pakistani government, which included allowing a review petition of the Supreme Court’s judgement and placing Asia Bibi on the Exit Control List, preventing her from leaving the country.
No room for reform
The space to debate the blasphemy laws has been so threatened that discussion of the laws have been suppressed. Attempts at reforms by politicians have met with little success. When Sherry Rehman, a member of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) submitted an amendment bill in 2011, then prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, said that his government would not touch the legislation: “We are all unanimous that nobody wants to change the law.” Ms Rehman was forced to withdraw her amendments.
Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission (HRCP), and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) have both proposed procedural amendments to the law, highlighting the incompatibility of the blasphemy laws with international law. In 2018 Pakistan’s Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights discussed ways to stop misuse of the laws, they recommended that anyone who falsely accuses a person of blasphemy should be awarded a similar punishment prescribed for a convict of blasphemy.
Repeated calls to amend or repeal the laws by international actors have also fallen on deaf ears. Any political intervention to reform the law risks the ire of the Islamist groups, which no government is willing to do. The mere hint of reform is usually met with violence, as typified by Asia Bibi’s case.
International condemnation of the laws from institutions like the UN Human Rights Council and United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), have had negligible impact.
Pakistan is signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), but continues to violate both agreements through its oppression of minorities. In May 2019, 51 MEPs wrote to Imran Khan asking for an end to the persecution of religious minorities and condemning the use of the blasphemy laws. The letter stated that ongoing violation of the ICCPR Convention could result in the suspension of all EU subsidies and trade preferences to Pakistan under the GSP+ preferences.
It is clear that the impetus to change the blasphemy laws must come from within Pakistan.
However, the problem goes beyond legislative reform. Even if the State were to amend or repeal discriminatory legislation, years of Islamisation under Zia-ul-Huq has institutionalised intolerance and bred radicalism.
Research by Arafat Mazhar, Director of Engage Pakistan, an NGO working on reforming the blasphemy law, makes a critical analysis of what the Islamic texts say about blasphemy in his report ‘The Untold Truth of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law’. He examines the Hanafi perspective (one of the major Islamic schools of thought and widely followed by Muslims in Pakistan) and works of classical jurists, muftis, academics and legal experts to highlight factual inaccuracies in the judicial interpretation of the law. During the 1986 debate to amend Section 295-C, only one out of the six parliamentarians, Muhammad Hamza, opposed the inclusion of the death penalty. Hamza called for a comprehensive review of the Islamic sources used to justify the death penalty by religious scholars and experts before any change in the law was passed. The other parliamentarians argued that among the entire Muslim community there was an ‘Ijma,’ i.e. consensus, and not a single dissenting opinion on the matter, and therefore no need for further debate.
Arafat Mazhar’s research found that every text used by Parliament to support claims of consensus on capital punishment for blasphemy in fact reveals a caveat that non-Muslims should not be killed for insulting the Prophet.
Changing the blasphemy laws will not happen overnight. There needs to be a considerable shift in majoritarian thinking and the extremist mind-set in certain sections of society to create a space for discussion and reduce the appetite for the blasphemy laws.
This can be achieved by implementing essential reforms to Pakistan’s biased education system which propagates intolerance towards religious minorities; building consensus from the ground through work like that of Arafat Mazhar, all supported by a government with the will and determination to address the issue.
We must not forget the plight of those who have been falsely accused of blasphemy, like Sawan Masih, Junaid Hafeez, Shagufta Kasur and Shafqat Masih. The government of Pakistan must be reminded that the blasphemy laws are wholly incompatible with Pakistan’s commitments under international law and Imran Khan’s vision of a ‘Naya Pakistan’ where religious minorities are protected and afforded equal rights under the constitution.
By CSW’s South Asia Advocacy Officer
Featured image by Saad Sarfraz Sheik