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Walking the tightrope on Pakistan's blasphemy laws

By Anita Joshua

Civil rights activists are wary of pinning their hopes on an under-pressure government to repeal, or even amend, the controversial laws.

Flashpoint: Aasia Bibi's death sentence has reignited the debate over blasphemy laws, pitting the civil rights activists against the “religious” right-wingers.

Irrespective of whether she wins the appeal against her death sentence, gets a presidential pardon, or Pakistan's blasphemy laws are amended, Aasia Bibi is a marked woman. Ironically, more so because of the attention her case has drawn over the past month-and-a-half after a sessions court in the Nankana Sahib district of Punjab sentenced her to death under Section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) for allegedly making derogatory remarks against the Prophet in an argument with women from her village.

The argument began after two women refused to drink water from a glass Aasia Bibi had touched because, according to them, it had been defiled due to her faith and caste. This was in 2009. In early November 2010 the sessions court announced the death sentence, triggering yet another debate on the dreaded blasphemy laws, which, according to the last report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, had come to haunt even the Muslims as rivals sects of Islam had begun to use the provisions against each other.

Being a Christian, her case, as a lawyer put it, seems to have bothered the conscience of the international community and condemnation from overseas, including the Vatican, was quick to come. President Asif Ali Zardari — himself a member of the minority Shia community — asked the federal Ministry of Minority Affairs to conduct an enquiry. He also constituted a committee under the Minister, calling upon religious experts, intellectuals and others to suggest amendments to the blasphemy laws.

Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer visited Aasia Bibi in Sheikhupura jail, where he addressed a press conference with the death row designate sitting beside him. In front of the media, she put her thumb impression on the mercy petition that Mr. Taseer was to submit to the President. Meanwhile, civil rights organisations took to the streets.

The “religious” right-wing parties were not far behind, calling for street-wide protests on Christmas-eve, a shutter-down strike on New Year's Eve and a public meeting in Karachi next month to protect the blasphemy laws.

All this attention has actually put Aasia Bibi's life in jeopardy, lament some opposed to the blasphemy laws. “If the sessions court convicted her, so what? Appeal. There is a High Court, there is the Supreme Court. Instead, Salman Taseer generated unwelcome publicity regarding this case at the cost of a woman who the government does not have the courage to support now,” rued the former federal Law Minister, Iqbal Haider.

Academic and human rights activist Farzana Bari said she was “extremely disturbed and shocked how Aasia's life has been put on the altar of political expediency”. But, while she was supportive of the move to amend the blasphemy laws, she said it ought to have been raised at the time of the 18th Amendment when the entire Constitution was under review. “It is unfortunate that this highly sensitive and controversial issue has been raised around the unfortunate case of Aasia whose chances of release are further reduced by this controversy.”

Their fears are not unwarranted. While no one has been executed in Pakistan under Section 295C of the PPC, the National Commission for Justice and Peace has recorded that 34 people — many of them Muslims — have been murdered for alleged blasphemy by individuals or mobs since 1986 when this clause was introduced by the Parliament elected under military dictator Zia-ul Haq's supervision.

Most of the victims were booked under the blasphemy laws — including Section 295B for defiling the Koran — and at least seven of them were killed or “committed suicide” under police watch. There have even been instances when judges who ordered the acquittal of blasphemy accused could not escape the fury of vigilantes. A most chilling instance according to the Jinnah Institute — one of the many organisations that have called for a review of Aasia Bibi's case and repeal of the blasphemy laws — is the murder of Lahore High Court judge Arif Iqbal Bhatti in 1997 for acquitting two Christian boys sentenced to death for blasphemy by a lower court.

So, in or out of prison, the fate of people booked under the blasphemy laws remains uncertain “as the ‘religious' right-wing — despite never having won a majority at the polls — wields disproportionate street power”, primarily because the majority prefers to look the other way. Aasia Bibi's impoverished husband and children have been on the run and now the primary concern of civil rights activists is her protection, especially with rewards being announced by hardline clerics for anyone who kills her in case she gets acquitted/pardoned and threats being issued to those who dare suggest amendments.

Under the circumstances, even die-hard optimists among civil rights activists have given up on repeal. According to lawyer Asad Jamal, “the time to seriously pursue repeal has not arrived; though it is good to keep suggesting that such laws will ultimately have to be repealed. But let's settle for amendments for now. It is simple politics. If you can't kill the snake, try taking out the sting. Sherry Rehman's proposed changes aim to take out most of the venom. I think a government besieged from all corners cannot be expected to even amend these laws. A government led by Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) is not likely to take up this cause. Other than PPP, Awami National Party and Muttahida Qaumi Movement, no party can be expected to join hands to alter these laws. And, right now even that is not possible.”

This is a widely held view. “I don't think our federal government, which is presently hostage to ethnic and sectarian militants, would even think of preventing misuse of the blasphemy law by incorporating necessary amendments in section 295C of PPC or consider adopting administrative measures to prevent this rampant misuse of blasphemy law in Pakistan to satisfy all kinds of prejudices of the complainants in vast majority of cases. This is unfortunately a most painful state of affairs,” laments Mr. Haider who, as part of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Cabinet, had attempted to amend the law in 1994 in vain.

In fact, even the discourse that Ms Rehman had hoped her Private Member's Bill would provoke in the National Assembly did not happen because of the delay in it being taken up. And on Wednesday, two days ahead of the shutter-down strike called by ‘religious' right-wing parties and organisations, federal Religious Affairs Minister Syed Khursheed Shah reiterated the government's commitment to the blasphemy laws on the floor of the National Assembly and clearly distanced the administration from the Private Member's Bill; more so because Ms. Rehman belongs to the PPP.

A main change that her Bill proposes is doing away with the death sentence in 295C of PPC since this has been highly misused to settle scores. Statistics testify this. In the 60 years after 1927 — when 295A was introduced in the Penal Code, and still remains both in India and Pakistan, to prohibit blasphemy towards all religions and holy persons — there were less than 10 reported cases of blasphemy. Since 1986, when 295C was added, nearly 1,000 people have been charged with blasphemy.

What Ms Rehman's Bill proposes is removing ambiguities in the law that provide scope for abuse and reducing punishments while introducing penalties for making allegations to settle personal scores. Also, the Bill proposes removal of trial of cases under 295A-C from the sessions courts to High Courts as they are always under a higher degree of public scrutiny. Besides, as the Member of National Assembly points out, sessions courts very often come under pressure; they get filled with mobs that pressurise the judges.

With the “religious” right-wing parties mounting pressure on the government against amending the blasphemy laws, civil rights activists are making an effort to rally together across the country to mobilise opinion under the banner of ‘Citizens for Democracy'. At the risk of coming across as pro-government, member organisations feel it is important to show visible support to the PPP-led federal dispensation in its initial intent to amend the blasphemy laws and, for now, view the Minister's turnaround as an attempt to diffuse a potentially volatile situation.

Their mission is not easy in a country where any criticism of the blasphemy laws is immediately billed by the “religious” right wingers as “anti-Islamic”. Some are openly citing the example of the murder of the LHC judge to threaten the government and legislators. And, a petition has already been filed in the LHC asking it to stop Parliament from discussing any amendment to the blasphemy laws.

Such being the odds, civil rights organisations are banking on Mr. Zardari, citing the manner in which he pushed through the Human Organs Transplant Law despite stiff opposition. But, that was a long haul. This promises to be even more uphill; all the more now that PPP's biggest coalition partner the MQM, which may have supported the amendments to maintain its secular credentials, has left the Cabinet with the threat to withdraw support to the government at a time of its choosing.

Source: The Hindu