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PAKISTAN: Death Sentence Revives Calls to Scrap Blasphemy Laws

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Pakistan, Nov 29 2010 (IPS) - What began as altercation among farm workers has become a full-blown nightmare for Pakistani mother Asia Bibi, one that points to her being led to the gallows.

In jail since June 2009, Bibi, a Christian, was sentenced to death on Nov. 12 under the country’s blasphemy laws, which penalise offending Islam in this majority Muslim country.

The sentence was handed down by a court in Nankana Sahib, a district in Punjab province, 75 kilometres west of the provincial capital Lahore where Bibi lives.

The sentencing of Bibi, the first woman to be meted the death penalty for blasphemy – has sent shock waves through civil society in this South Asian country. Terming the laws “violative of all norms of justice”, the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) has called for their repeal.

It has also revived a long-running debate about the blasphemy laws and what critics have said is their abuse to persecute minorities.

Bibi’s story began one day in June 2009, when she was asked to fetch a glass of water to give to a landowner’s wife. She did so, but several Muslim women, labourers like Bibi, remarked that the water was ‘unclean’ after it had been carried by a non-Muslim like her. Heated exchanges ensued between Bibi and the Muslim women, and Bibi claimed she was also asked by her co-workers to embrace Islam.

Five days later, the blasphemy case was registered at the local police station by the mosque imam and three purported women witnesses. Since then, Bibi has been behind bars and her husband has gone into hiding, fearing for his life and that of their five children.

While the case has dismayed many and triggered protests in Lahore, lawyer Akmal Hussain says Bibi’s case could yet be a “turning point” and boost efforts to scrap the law if “civil society and political parties come together”.

“I don’t see a repeal happening in my lifetime,” Najam Sethi, editor of the ‘The Friday Times’ weekly, says, adding that an amendment was all that he can hope for.

“It remains to be seen if the government has the political will to stand up to Islamist and anti-human rights lobbies within the political class, the civil administration and the judiciary,” says Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch.

In his bid to ‘Islamise’ the country in 1986, Pakistan’s then leader, Gen Mohammad Zia ul Haq, enacted the blasphemy laws. Only four percent of the country’s 175 million people are from other religious groups, including Christians.

Bushra Gohar, a legislator with the Awami National Party, explains: “Decades have passed but no government found the courage to repeal these laws that have contributed significantly to intolerance, violence, bigotry and hate in the country.”

She blames “political expediency, compromise and the appeasement of a handful of religious extremists” for preventing succeeding governments from amending or striking out the blasphemy laws.

In 2000, President Pervez Musharraf promised to repeal the laws, but retracted this amid protests from religious parties.

Gohar submitted a bill on the repeal of the blasphemy laws in 2009, soon after a group of Muslims looted and burned houses and a Catholic church in a Christian community in Gojra, in Punjab, in August. It has yet to be tabled in the assembly.

Last week, legislator Sherry Rehman, former information minister of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, submitted a bill seeking a repeal of the blasphemy laws. Another bill she filed seeks to “rationalise punishments, making it very difficult to abuse these laws”.

Still, Rehman says, the blasphemy laws reflect the larger problem of extremism and lack of respect for human rights. “Even with full repeal, the abuse of minorities won’t stop. Most cases are perpetrated by mobs. They, too, must know the law will take cognisance of their behaviour as criminal and liable for punishment,” adds Rehman.

Data collected by National Commission of Justice and Peace (NCJP), formed by Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, shows at least 1,058 people have been charged under blasphemy laws from 1986 to 2010. These include 132 Christians, 449 Muslims, 456 Ahmadis and 21 Hindus. About 34 people have been killed by angry mobs or individuals.

In his weekly public audience on Nov. 12, Pope Benedict XVI said that Pakistani Christians often became targets “of violence and discrimination”. He added: “I feel close to Asia Bibi and her family and I ask that she be released as soon as possible.”

But even if Bibi gets relief from the superior courts, her life would remain in danger. “She will not be safe in prison, and she will not be safe after release, which at the moment is unlikely,” says I A Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

“Her security is highly at stake due to the publicity her case has received,” agrees Peter Jacob of the NCJP.

Beyond Bibi’s case, the challenge remains the building of political will among political parties in the parliament so that they take a stand despite the backlash from religious and conservative groups.

In truth, Gohar points out, “No mainstream political party in the country today supports the (blasphemy) laws, yet they are dragging their feet in building a consensus to deal with it squarely.”

The Women Action Forum, a women’s rights organisation, has decided that a long-term campaign is needed to change public opinion so that the scrapping of these laws can become politically acceptable. “We first need to get the fencesitters on our side,” says Kausar S Khan, a WAF member.

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