A Christian woman has been charged under the country’s blasphemy laws for forwarding a blasphemous text message to various people, her family said.
Rafique Masih, husband of the accused woman Shagufta Kiran, said that his wife was taken into custody by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) from Islamabad on July 29, on a complaint that she had forwarded a text message deemed derogatory to Islam in a WhatsApp group.
“Armed personnel of the FIA raided our house and took my wife and two sons in custody. They also took possession of our mobile phones, computers and other valuable items,” he said. He added that the FIA later charged Shagufta under sections 295-A and 295-B of the blasphemy law but freed the two boys.
Section 295-A relates to deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious sentiments and is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine. Section 295-B prescribes punishment by imprisonment for life and fine for defiling the Holy Quran.
Masih claims that his wife Shagufta was arrested because she was a member of a WhatsApp group where someone allegedly shared a blasphemous message, which she forwarded to other persons without reading and knowing the consequences.
“Shagufta knew nothing about the post, she didn’t write it but was accused of passing it on,” he said.
MISUSE OF BLASPHEMY LAWS
Church officials and human rights groups say blasphemy allegations are frequently used not only to settle personal scores but to target religious minorities in Pakistan. However, with the surge in blasphemy cases involving social media platforms, church leaders are now urging Christians to exercise “extreme caution”.
Church of Pakistan’s Moderator/President Bishop Dr Azad Marshall said that the recent incident highlights the need for “responsible use” of social media in Pakistan.
“Christians especially need to be more careful in sharing content, because any faith-based post could be used to instigate violence against the community,” he said. “We need to understand that religious sentiments run high in our country, therefore it’s important to carefully analyze the content before sharing it online or in groups,” he told Kross Konnection.
“In this particular case, our Christian sister allegedly forwarded a text message deemed sacrilegious without even reading it. Ignorance is not an excuse for breaking laws,” he said.
Drawing attention to the misuse of the laws, Marshall said that the blatant abuse of the blasphemy laws has imperiled the lives of all Pakistanis irrespective of their faiths.
“Mere allegations are enough to destroy the lives of the accused and their families, and it’s time the Pakistani government deals with this critical issue on priority,” he said.
He stressed that blasphemy allegations must be promptly and thoroughly investigated by an independent and impartial authority. “False accusers must be given harsh punishments if the government intends to thwart misuse of the blasphemy laws,” he added.
He added that the law should be amended so that the FIRs in all blasphemy cases are registered only after permission from the concerned government body before courts take them up.
“We have been raising this issue on all forums, but it seems the government takes selective action only when it comes under international pressure, as has been seen in the cases of Asia Bibi and in Shagufta and Shafqat’s case,” Marshall said. “When we raise our voices against such cases, we are told that we are maligning Pakistan’s name in the world. They don’t realize that unless the government acts against the misuse of the blasphemy laws and other issues like forced conversion of underage minority girls, Pakistan’s image will not improve internationally.”
A Senate Special Committee on Human Rights and the Islamabad High Court in 2018 recommended that those making false blasphemy accusations be given the same punishments as those for blasphemy convictions, but the government dismissed the recommendation. The recommendation also stated that anyone registering a blasphemy case at a police station must bring two witnesses.
While punishment for blasphemy ranges from several years in prison to death in Pakistan, a person making a false accusation faces potential punishment of only six months in prison or a fine of 1,000 rupees. Successive governments have acknowledged that the blasphemy laws are blatantly misused, but little effort has been made to stop the abuses.
Rights activists say it’s unlikely that any government will move to repeal or amend the blasphemy laws due to fierce religious sentiments in the Muslim-majority country. They say Pakistani authorities must be urged to immediately implement effective procedural and institutional safeguards at the investigative, prosecutorial and judicial levels to prevent abuse of these laws.
At least 35 people in prison in 2020 received death sentences for blasphemy, compared with 29 the previous year, according to the US State Department’s 2020 International Religious Freedom Report. The report cites the Center for Social Justice, a Pakistani non-governmental organisation, as reporting that at least 199 people were accused of blasphemy offenses in 202, the highest number of blasphemy cases in a single year in the country’s history. Most of the accused were Shia (70 percent of cases) and Ahmadis (20 percent), according to the report.