Blasphemy: Terror of the Theocrats in Pakistan

With the present structure of the Blasphemy law, the theocratic state of Pakistan will see more false prosecutions and persecution of innocent people in the name of religion.

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Photo taken on Jan. 1, 2022 shows the sunrise view in Lahore, Pakistan. (Photo by Sajjad/Xinhua)

On April 17, 2023, a Chinese national, identified as Tian, working at the Dasu hydropower project of Kohistan District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), was taken into Police custody following unrest, after labourers at the dam site accused him of making blasphemous remarks during a heated argument. “We have arrested the foreigner suspect under blasphemy and terrorism charges and airlifted him from here to present him before the anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Abbottabad,” said Mohammad Khalid, the Kohistan District Police Officer (DPO).

Had he not been a Chinese national, the mob, as in earlier instances, would simply have lynched him. Keeping an eye on the importance of the Pakistan-China relation, Tian was airlifted in an Army helicopter from Upper Kohistan to Abbottabad. Not all blasphemy accused have been as lucky.

On February 11, 2023, a mob of hundreds, led by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), lynched a blasphemy accused after attacking the Warburton Police Station where he was detained, in the Nankana Sahib District of Punjab. The mob later set the body of the suspect on fire. Residents of the area claimed that the man — who had returned after spending two years in jail — used to practice witchcraft by pasting his ex-wife’s picture on holy papers. Overwhelmed by the large crowd, the Station House Officer (SHO) of Warburton Police Station, Feroze Bhatti, and other Police personnel, escaped the scene to save their lives. The mob then grabbed the man and dragged him out into the street, where they beat him to death.

While three persons were killed on blasphemy charges in 2022, three people were also killed in such violence in 2021. In one incident, on December 3, 2021, a violent mob at the Wazirabad Road in Sialkot city (Sialkot District), Punjab, tortured to death a Sri Lankan national, Priyantha Kumara, over blasphemy allegations before burning his body. Kumara was working as a senior manager at a leading Sialkot factory that manufactures and exports sports products.

Blasphemy has been used by the Islamist fundamentalists and extremists as a weapon to target and discriminate against minorities in the theocratic state of Pakistan. According to the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) report of January 24, 2023, as many as 89 citizens have been killed in 1,415 accusations and cases of blasphemy in the country since independence. The CRSS report stated that, from 1947 to 2021, 18 women and 71 men were extra-judicially killed over blasphemy accusations. The allegations were made against 107 women and 1,308 men. Out of the total, 1,287 citizens were accused of committing blasphemy in the decade between 2011 and 2021. However, the report also noted, “The actual number is believed to be higher because not all blasphemy cases get reported in the press,” adding that more than 70 per cent of the cases were reported from Punjab. 1,098 cases were reported from Punjab followed by 177 from Sindh, 33 from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), 12 from Balochistan and 11 from Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK).

The origin of the blasphemy laws dates back to the British era, when these were promulgated in 1860. Initially, four blasphemy laws — section 295, 296, 297 and 298 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) — were introduced. In 1927, section 295 was supplemented by 295A, after a 19-year-old carpenter named Ilmuddin stabbed Mahashay Rajpal Malhotra to death on April 6, 1929, for publishing a blasphemous pamphlet.

In the early phase after the independence, there were no new provisions for blasphemy. However, during the military rule of General Zia-ul-Haq (1978-1988), the most controversial laws, Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), (blasphemy against the Holy Quran) was introduced in 1982; and Section 295-C, PPC (desecration against Prophet Muhammad) in 1986. Section 295-C read:

Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.

Later, the Federal Sharia Court held in a judgement that life imprisonment was repugnant to Islam, and that, therefore, the death penalty was the only punishment possible for those convicted of blasphemy under 295-C. The Court ruled that if the Government did not delete the words “imprisonment for life” from the statute by April 30, 1991, the Court would consider the change to have been made. On May 1, 1991, the death penalty became mandatory for persons convicted under 295-C. Though a Bill was adopted by the Senate to give effect to the ruling, the National Assembly did not pass the Bill. However, the court’s ruling on the mandatory death penalty remained valid.

Among the most high-profile accused was Aasia Bibi, also known as Asia Noreen, a Christian woman from Ittan Wali village in the Sheikhupura District. She was sentenced to death on November 7, 2010, for blasphemy, allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad during a row with woman neighbours in June 2009. Noreen denied that she had committed blasphemy and asserted that she had been accused by her neighbours to “settle an old score.” On November 7, 2010, Muhammed Naveed Iqbal, a judge at the district Court of Sheikhupura, sentenced her to death by hanging. Additionally, a fine equivalent to USD 1,100 was imposed. On October 31, 2018, Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned the conviction, and Aasia Bibi was released from the New Jail for Women in Multan on November 7, 2018, after spending eight years in prison.

In the interim, the then Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who had come forward to support Aasia Bibi, was killed by his own security guard, Mumtaz Qadri on January 4, 2011. Qadri was reportedly incensed by the Governor criticism of the blasphemy law, as also his advocacy for Aasia Bibi. Taseer had demanded the removal of the mandatory death penalty on conviction. Subsequently, on March 2, 2011, unidentified assailants killed the then Federal Minorities Affairs Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, another outspoken critic of the law.

Significantly, most of the blasphemy cases are found to be false. On September 1, 2022, the Supreme Court (SC), in a detailed judgement, asked the concerned State functionaries to exercise “utmost care” while dealing with blasphemy cases. The SC’s judgement came in the case of bail granted to a Christian sanitary worker imprisoned since January 4, 2021, in false blasphemy case. During the judgement, Justice Qazi Faez Isa observed,

Unfortunately, such cases receive wide publicity which has an adverse effect and may also jeopardise a fair trial. Irresponsible and sensational broadcasts and publications repeat what allegedly the accused had said or done; those repeating this may themselves be committing the same offence.

Interestingly, Muslims have also been the victim of this draconian law, with accusations of blasphemy often put forward to settle personal scores. According to the ‘Human Rights Observer 2022’ report prepared by the Lahore based Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), Muslims made up a large chunk of people accused of committing blasphemy in 2021. The report revealed that every second accused of blasphemy was a Muslim, adding that as many as 84 persons had been booked under blasphemy charges throughout Pakistan in the year. According to the report, 42 persons accused of blasphemy were Muslims, followed by 25 Ahmadis (an Islamic sect that has, by law, been excluded from identifying themselves as Muslims), seven Hindus and three Christians. 81 per cent (68 cases) were reported from the Punjab province alone, followed by seven in Islamabad, five in KPK, three in Sindh and one in PoK.

Pakistan is one of 13 countries where blasphemy is punishable by death. While human rights groups were concerned about this draconian law, the Pakistan Government, instead of considering a lesser punishment, on January 17, 2023, passed a Bill that will further strengthen the contentious blasphemy laws. The National Assembly unanimously passed the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act 2023, enhancing the minimum punishment for those who insult the revered personalities of Islam from three to 10 years, along with a fine of 10 lakh Pakistani rupees. These laws will further jeopardise the life of blasphemy accused. Recently, on March 24, 2023, an anti-terrorism court in Peshawar city, KPK, convicted and sentenced Syed Muhammad Zeeshan to death after he was accused of posting blasphemous content in a WhatsApp group.

With the present structure of the Blasphemy law, the theocratic state of Pakistan will see more false prosecutions and persecution of innocent people in the name of religion.

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty is a Counter-terrorism Expert on Pakistan at Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) in New Delhi

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