Pakistan’s blasphemy laws continue victimise innocent people

Nasir Saeed

Once again Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law is in the limelight after a Briton, Mohammad Asghar, has been sentenced to death on blasphemy charges.

His tenant, with whom he was having a dispute, brought the charges against him alleging that he had claimed to be Islam’s prophet in Rawalpindi.

According to Mohammad Asghar’s family he is mentally ill and was treated for paranoid schizophrenia in Edinburgh before returning to Pakistan in 2010.

British media and politicians seem quite concerned with the way blasphemy laws have been misused against Mohammad Asghar. Baroness Warsi, who believes that this is a very sensitive issue, has raised her concern with Pakistani authorities in the UK and Pakistan. Pakistani High Commissioner, Wajid Shamsul Hassan has confirmed that he has received “messages of concern” from UK residents and politicians, including senior Foreign Office minister, Baroness Saeeda Warsi.

During Prime Minister’s Questions David Cameron told Labour MP Sheila Gilmore, who represents the Edinburgh East constituency, that he is taking the case “very seriously” and also said that the Pakistani authorities could be in “no doubt about the seriousness” with which Britain viewed developments. Several churches and human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, have also raised their concerns.

Asghar is not first British Pakistani who has been charged under the blasphemy law and sentenced to death, there is also Shahbaz’s case which was very similar. There have been several Pakistani Christians and Muslims who were suffering from mental illness but despite this have been sentenced to death. There may be many more languishing in Pakistani jails, but since they are Pakistani nobody cares about them, and sometimes even their families abandon them. I am also aware of cases where a few mentally ill people were killed and even burnt alive by an angry mob. In 2012, in Bahawalpur, hundreds of angry protestors had wrestled a mentally ill man, from police custody and burnt him alive in the town square for alleged blasphemy, and no one was questioned.

The then President Asif Ali Zardari took notice, expressing deep grief and shock over the disturbing incident. The prime minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf had also expressed his concern but nobody dared to take any concrete step to bring appropriate changes and stop the growing misuse of blasphemy laws. Two senior minsters even lost their lives because of these controversial laws, Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti (the only Christian minister) for supporting Aasia Bibi and demanding changes in the blasphemy laws. Both of their murderers are in jail, but there is demand for their unconditional release, especially for Salman Taseer’s killer Malik Mumtaz Qadri, by Islamist groups.

Since the blasphemy laws were introduced by Zia ul Haque, the number of blasphemy victims has continued to rise. Minorities especially consider themselves a main target of this law as their churches have been constantly ransacked, several Christian villages and towns have been set on fire, and several Christians have been burnt alive and even extra judicially killed.

However, no one has been questioned or brought to justice even after a judicial report has identified the perpetrators. The government’s inaction encourages them and they believe they are doing the right thing.

But this time it is a matter of a British national and Prime Minister David Cameron has got involved himself. Asghar will be released soon, as although he is originally Pakistani as he is a British citizen and the British government is concerned about him.

The plight of Rimsha Masih, a 14-year-old Christian girl, is another well know case. She was charged under the blasphemy law for burning Quranic Pages, despite the fact that she suffers from Down’s Syndrome. She was framed by a local prayer leader, Jadoon Chishti, in a bid to get Christians moved out of the area. Though she was acquitted and later moved to Canada because of special interference honorable Jason Kenny, Canadian minister, I still remember how some extremists and lawyers were becoming thirsty for her blood. Her human rights and Islamic values were put to one side while demands were made for her killing. How long will we continue humiliating our own people, depriving them of justice and killing them in the name of religion? This should be brought to an end.

This is another opportunity for us to look into how these laws are being misused and bring about appropriate changes, as we know that these laws are being misused to settle personal scores and to persecute minorities. The international community has raised its concerns at several occasions. At least a little concession must be given to children and mentally ill people. It is a responsibility of the CII (council of Islamic ideology) to prepare recommendations in the light of Quran and hadiths and help the government to make changes so no innocent is punished for a crime that he or she has never committed, or committed while suffering from a mental illness. As far as I am aware, many men and women were punished during the prophet’s life and even after, for insulting the prophet but they were all mentally fit and physically active. All those who were punished for reviling the prophet Mohammad (PBUH) were not mentally ill. Even the old lady who used to throw dirt on the prophet was never touched.

Pakistan’s Blasphemy law’s are becoming a mockery in the world, forcing international organisations and governments to interfere in cases like Rimsha’s and Mohammad Asghar’s. Since we all know and have admitted on several occasions that these laws are being misused, why can we not discuss them in our parliament and bring appropriate changes to them without touching the sanctity of these laws. We made these laws and now the time has come to review them for our own people.

According to the Pakistani high commission “The government of Pakistan believes in the policy as dictated by Islam that it is better to acquit one hundred guilty in order to avoid punishment to one innocent person”, but we are still knowingly killing innocent people.

Until changes are not brought to these laws, it is also a responsibility of the Pakistani higher courts to ensure due process and fair trial especially in cases where the victim is mentally ill.

Upholding international norms is also a responsibility of the higher courts. It is also a responsibility of the higher courts to punish those where it is proved that a case was registered with malicious intent.

However, CII Chairman Maulana Muhammad Khan Sheerani believes there is no need to amend the blasphemy laws. He said “we don’t want to discourage people from coming forward and lodging complaints against blasphemers. There is already a law – Section 194 of the Pakistan Penal Code – which envisages punishments for lodging a false FIR.”

If the Pakistani government is not willing to amend the blasphemy laws, it should at the very least look at the way in which mentally ill people are dealt with under the law. Maybe a case like Mohammad Asghar’s and the accompanied international pressure will force the government to look at what needs to be done to prevent the growing misuse of blasphemy laws.