Challenges to reforming the blasphemy law
Religious groups have been creating havoc in the name of religion and now this has to stop
Nasir Saeed
November 03, 2015
The recent decision of the Supreme Court (SC) of Pakistan to deny the appeal against the death sentence of Malik Mumtaz Qadri is being welcomed both inside and outside of the country. I know there have been many organisations that have been monitoring this case closely. I am glad that justice has been served and our SC’s stature and respect has been further elevated.
Though some groups are already protesting against the verdict, it was an onerous task for the judges and I am sure it will have a long-term impact on our society. We may not see any immediate effect of this judgment but it is momentous and I am very optimistic that, sooner or later, it will help us to challenge the continuous misapplication and misuse of the blasphemy law, and help our legislature to deal with the challenges of the long-standing demand to reform the law.
The blasphemy law has been the subject of domestic and international debate since its outset and has been widely criticised. There has been a continuous demand for its abolition and reform from minorities, civil society and the international community. Unfortunately, even talking about reforming or changing the law is considered blasphemous. But since the SC has clarified that a call for reform to the blasphemy law, in order to provide safeguards against its misuse by levelling false allegations, should not be considered objectionable.
I think the decision will change the scenario in the country as the SC has not accepted the justification put forward by Malik Mumtaz Qadri and his counsel for killing Salmaan Taseer. A large majority, including politicians and religious scholars, admit that this law is being misused, while minorities consider themselves the main target of this law. There is a dire need to amend this law to stop its growing misuse but no one dares to touch it, and those who have tried have been forced to backtrack.
In the past, whenever people like MP Bhandara and Sherry Rehman courageously raised the issue of reforming this law in parliament, they were silenced by their fellow MPs and threatened with death. It was argued that because Pakistan is an Islamic country such issues could not be brought to parliament. However, it is parliament’s duty to discuss and bring necessary changes to this law or any other law that is being misused. In recent years, misuse of the blasphemy law has grown and extra-judicial killings are becoming common. Last year, a Christian couple, Shama and Shahzad, were murdered by a mob and then burnt in a brick kiln furnace.
During the PPP’s government when there was some news circulating about bringing change to this law, religious groups took their protest to the streets and then Prime Minister (PM) Yousaf Raza Giliani had to announce that his government was not considering any changes to the blasphemy law. Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti of the PPP — who vociferously criticised this law and demanded changes — were killed and the impression was given that anyone who demanded changes in the blasphemy law would face the same fate. Religious groups have been creating havoc in the name of religion and now this has to stop.
In June, there were some reports in the media that to combat the growing abuse of the blasphemy law, a draft bill had been finalised by the government, and would next be put before the government for approval. The proposal will also introduce severe penalties against those who make false allegations of blasphemy. The legislation aims to make sure that vigilantes do not take the law into their own hands. It was reported that procedural loopholes had been identified in the Pakistan Penal Code’s Section 295-C, which carries the death penalty, something that the draft addresses. However, there has been no further mention of the bill since then.
The recent SC ruling is an opportunity for the present government; it must bring this matter to parliament and have a debate to bring necessary changes, at the very least what is proposed in the ruling about the false accuser who uses this law to settle personal vendettas. The judges decided the case with diligence and in accordance with the Constitution and law.
They said, “In a democratic society, citizens have a right to contend, debate or maintain that the law has not been correctly framed and it ought to be understood that any call for reforms in the laws regarding a religion related offence can only be called for introducing safeguards against the misapplication or misuse of such laws.” They continued: “Any call for reforming the blasphemy law (Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code) ought not to be mistaken as a call for doing away with that law and it ought to be understood as a call for introducing adequate safeguards against malicious application or use of that law by motivated persons.”
The court labelled Qadri’s actions as a terrorist act under Section Six of the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 and said that “even if he (Qadri) was motivated by any religious sentiments still he could not kill Mr Salmaan Taseer”.
But what about those who are still hailing Qadri as a hero for his heinous crime and demanding that the president should pardon him? What about those who are demanding that those who are imprisoned under the blasphemy law should be executed? Unfortunately, the government has been tacitly approving the vigilante killing of innocent people, which has strengthened their belief that it is their religious duty to kill someone once they have been accused of committing blasphemy.
According to the ruling, “the law of the land does not permit any individual to arrogate unto himself the roles of complainant, prosecutor and executioner”. If everybody becomes a judge and executioner himself then no one will be safe in our society. The challenges to reforming the blasphemy law remain as difficult as ever, with every effort in the past failing. Even Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and General Pervez Musharraf attempted to bring changes to the blasphemy law but backtracked.
But now I am optimistic and I believe the PML-N can overcome all these challenges. I also believe it can dare to change this law as it has a history of implementing changes, like restoring the weekly holiday from Friday to Sunday, despite opposition from religious groups.
Let us hope and pray that the PML-N can negotiate with religious groups and reform this law to finally bring an end to its continuous misuse.