Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

PAKISTAN: 19 Years Later, Blasphemy Law Haunts Again

Zofeen T. Ebrahim

KARACHI, Pakistan, May 5 2005 (IPS) - The recent killing of a man accused of blasphemy in Pakistan’s remote North-West Frontier Province is worrying. This is an indication of a disturbing trend in Pakistani society that seems to be moving towards extremism and bigotry.

On Apr. 20, instigated by the village imam, a livid mob of some 400 fellow villagers went on a witch-hunt for Ashiq Nabi, a young man in his 30s. Nabi, who was from Spin Khak, a remote village near the North-West Frontier’s Nowshera – some 100 kilometers from the capital Islamabad – allegedly desecrated the Quran.

Some news reports say he burnt a copy of the Muslim holy book, while others claim that during a quarrel with his wife – when she asked him to swear by the Quran – Nabi in a fit of rage hurled it away and stormed out of the house.

According to witnesses, the mob chased Nabi through the fields. But he managed to seek refuge up a tree and from there pleaded for his life. Then someone in the mob pulled out a revolver and shot him dead.

The irony is that while all this was happening, the police just looked on.

”The case is chillingly similar to several that have happened in recent years. Without any proof and based on unsubstantiated allegations, local clerics have declared alleged blasphemers ‘kafirs’ (infidels) and incited people to kill the persons thus condemned,” said the popular Dawn’ English-language newspaper in a scathing editorial.

The paper added that the police should have taken him into protective custody, while investigating the matter.

But the police said they went to Nabi’s house, but could not do anything as the 400- strong mob had found him first.

In 1986 the penal code was amended by the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1986, which added the blasphemy law under section 295-C to the Pakistan Penal Code. It provided the death penalty or life imprisonment for the criminal offence of defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammad.

According to the London-based Amnesty International, the changes in legislation relating to religious offences in recent years have contributed to an atmosphere of religious intolerance in Pakistan.

On Apr. 5, 1994, Mansoor Masih, a Christian man charged with blasphemy, was shot dead near the Lahore High Court; his two co-accused, including a 13 year-old boy, and an escort were injured. A few days later, on Apr. 21, a Muslim practitioner of indigenous medicine was stoned to death by a mob in Gujranwala which believed him to have burned some pages of the Koran.

They tried to set his body on fire while he was probably still alive and dragged his dead body through the streets.

In May 2004, Samuel Masih, was arrested in Lahore on the basis of a complaint that he had insulted Islam. Since he was suffering from tuberculosis he was transferred from the jail to a hospital for treatment. He was attacked by one of the police constables escorting him. Masih died three days later.

According to Amnesty International, the same year Nasim Bibi, another accused and an asthma patient was put in judicial custody where she reportedly died. She was allegedly denied medical treatment while in prison.

The deputy superintendent of the prison claimed Bibi had a pre-existing heart condition and died of heart failure.

Another case was that of Mushtaq Zafar, also arrested on the grounds of blasphemy. He was on his way home from the High Court, while on bail, when two unidentified assailants gunned him down. His neighbours brought the case against him over some petty dispute.

Condemning the latest lynching, the Pakistan Human Rights Commission said the state was in ”the grip of anarchy” as it had ”overwhelmingly failed to penalise people who have violated the law and taken it into their hands”.

“We believe that the entire blasphemy law needs to be reviewed, and its increased abuse discussed at public forums, so that a consensus on the issue can evolve. Any law that can be used to victimise persons in so blatant a fashion needs to be scrapped,” Kamila Hayat, the commission’s joint director, told IPS.

President Pervez Musharraf had announced in 2001 that the blasphemy law would be amended to make it less open to abuse. But this move had been fiercely resisted by religious political parties and groups and the amendment was hastily shelved.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the Pakistani government and none of the major political parties have publicly condemned the Apr. 20 killing.

According to various news reports, the area police filed a blasphemy case against Nabi based on the complaint of his uncle. His wife, it seems, also recorded a statement as a witness.

While police said they are looking for the cleric who instigated the crowd, Nabi’s family announced they would not accept his body for burial according to Muslim rites because he ”was an infidel”.

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