Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

PAKISTAN: Repeal of Blasphemy Laws Still a Pipe Dream

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Oct 6 2009 (IPS) - It is a never-ending saga.

Every time someone charged with violation of the controversial blasphemy laws is murdered or suffers mistreatment in the hands of an angry mob or individual, calls for their repeal intensify.

Yet concerned sectors are still waiting anxiously for concrete action by the state to stem the tide of religious violence against minority groups who bear the brunt of these laws.

The death of a 20-year-old Christian while in the custody of the police has intensified the campaign against the laws. But clerics are not backing down, insisting the laws should stay.

In 2000, then President Pervez Musharraf promised to repeal the laws. "He retracted when the ‘mullahs’ (religious teachers) threatened protests," recalled Zohra Yusuf, vice chairperson of the Sindh chapter of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

Robert Fanish Masih was arrested around mid-September on blasphemy charges after Muslims went on a rampage in his village, Jaithikey, near Sialkot, close to the Indian border. He was found dead in his cell four days later. Asma Jahangir, the head of the HRCP, called it "death in custody" and held the police authorities responsible for it.

His family and community members were forced to flee the area, where they were also prevented from burying him.

Rights activist Tahira Abdullah said mobs using the law to inflict harm on others are acting "like private vigilante groups," she said.

No less than governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer has called for a repeal of the blasphemy laws. But his bold call on Sep. 16 for the controversial laws’ repeal was met with a warning from the president of the conservative Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam), Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, who said that his party would resist any attempt to annul the blasphemy laws.

Continued state inaction on the much-maligned blasphemy laws has only reinforced perceptions that "the present government has no intention of repealing the laws," said Yusuf.

I.A. Rehman, noted rights activist and secretary general of the HRCP, told IPS "(neither) the present government (nor any) government in Pakistan is likely to have the courage to repeal the blasphemy laws". He added that "the state has committed the folly of making obscurantist fanatics stronger than itself." Calling for a repeal of the law "is the only rational way out" although "this demand is unlikely to be met."

The Pakistan Minorities' Democratic Movement, which has 51,500 members and affiliates in 47 districts, has started a signature campaign for the repeal of the blasphemy laws. "Since July 16, 2009, we have collected over 200,000 signatures," said party chairman Atif Jamil Paggan.

"What we hope to gain from our pressure is a policy of making the laws dormant. If these are not invoked, for some years or do not yield the results the fanatics expect, repeal will become possible," said Rehman.

Declaring Masih’s alleged suicide a "judicial murder," the HRCP, in a press statement issued shortly after his death, expressed concern "over the increased attacks on religious minorities" demanding the "government take proactive measures to prevent such violence."

The blasphemy laws were enacted by military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1986 in a bid to Islamise the country, where only four percent of the country’s 170 million population consists of religious minorities, including Christians.

While none has been executed since the laws were passed, lynch mobs have killed several of the accused, citing the laws to justify their actions.

According to the National Commission of Justice and Peace (NCJP), which provides legal aid to the victims of these laws irrespective of religion, at least 966 people have been charged under the blasphemy laws between 1986 and September 2009. These include 481 Muslims, 120 Christians, 340 Ahmadis, 14 Hindus and 10 people of unidentified religion. About 32 people have been killed extrajudicially by an angry mob or individuals, states NCJP.

On Sept. 15, jail officials of Sialkot district jail claimed that Masih had committed suicide by hanging himself. Rights group refused to believe this statement, alleging he was "tortured to death" by jail officials.

Sialkot is about 125 kilometres from Lahore, capital city of the Punjab province and is famous internationally as manufacturing hub for sports equipment and surgical instruments.

Following the public outcry triggered by Masih’s death, the government suspended the jail superintendent. But such an action has done nothing to appease the concerned sectors.

A U.S.-based non-profit group, Advocates International (AI), has urged Pakistan to "end unlawful impunity, police brutality and religious persecution caused on its blasphemy laws."

The AI said photographs of Masih taken at the morgue show clear signs of torture, and not strangulation as the police are claiming was self-inflicted."

"We are investigating the cause of (his) death as there are signs of torture on his body," said Shahbaz Bhatti, minister for minority affairs, speaking to IPS by phone from Islamabad. He described the death as "very barbaric, tragic and highly condemnable," intimating that he, too, believed that Masih was murdered.

Masih’s alleged murder came in the wake of two violent attacks against Christian communities in Korian village and Gojra in Punjab on July 31 and Aug. 1, respectively. The incidents left nine people dead and led to the burning and looting of hundreds of Christian homes by an enraged Muslim group, reacting violently to reports of Christian children tearing pages off the Quran, Islam’s holy book, during some wedding festivities.

"Considering the environment prevailing in the country, we’re asking for a review, revisit and amendment to the laws," said Bhatti, a Catholic.

Mohammad Nafees, a journalist and senior research fellow for Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy in Islamabad, supports this move. He knows, however, that the "religious lobby" against such a call was so strong that "any attempt to change (the laws) may not be very easy."

The controversy sparked by the Gojra incident, he said, failed to bring justice to the victims, who were "now being haunted by law enforcers while the culprits are at large."

"If we can at least save these poor people from this legal harassment and torture, we would be able to claim some sort of success. If we fail here, we can't even talk about a little change in the blasphemy laws," he said. "It's a simple equation."

"A bad law cannot be amended to make it better," argued HRCP’s Yusuf. "No government has been able to roll back the intolerance unleashed (by the laws). The current spurt (of violence) is due to the extremist forces wanting to assert their power."

Nafisa Shah, a member of the National Assembly and a long-time rights activist acknowledged that the questionable laws have been abused.

"We have stated that these laws have caused religious violence and have been used to settle personal scores. The laws have made minorities vulnerable but have also been used against people of the Muslim majority and several cases of public lynching and mob violence are incited on the premise of blasphemy," said Shah, who has been selected to head the newly formed subcommittee of Parliament’s Standing Committee on Minorities. The committee is tasked to prepare a comprehensive report on the damaging effects of this law and make recommendations to the government.

"Laws are made according to the needs of society, but in Pakistan, there was no need for these laws," said Peter Jacob, chairman of the NCJP.

"What we need, apart from repeal/amendment, is greater tolerance in society — from revision of textbooks to sensitisation of police, administration, councilors, parliamentarians," said Yusuf.

Shah said she favours a repeal of the law but reminded civil society that "that there are a range of parties from extreme right to left in the parliament and the standing committee which have to be brought on board," adding that without including them, nothing can be passed in the assembly.

"What we are trying to do is to create a negotiating space through which we can enlarge our support in the parliament and move forward against discriminatory laws."

"Blasphemy laws can at least be taken up by our legislators, and it won’t create a storm," said Jacob. They did so when they reverted the holiday from Friday to Sunday and amended the Hudood Ordinances — still another controversial legislation that makes it difficult for women to prove an allegation of rape — were amended, nothing adverse happened, he added.

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