The Peshawar High Court has directed the federal and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governments to update it on efforts to amend the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) to prescribe only death sentence, rather than the status quo alternative of lifetime imprisonment, for blasphemy offences.
Additional Attorney General Aamir Javed and Additional Advocate General Sardar Ali Raza were directed to produce their respective reports on the efforts made to implement a judgement of the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) delivered on Oct 30, 1990, declaring that life imprisonment for committing blasphemy was against Islamic injunctions.
The HC bench comprised Justice Roohul Amin Khan and Justice Mussarat Hilali.
It issued the order while hearing a petition of Advocate Asif Hameed Qureshi seeking directives for the federal and provincial governments to remove the punishment of life imprisonment for blasphemy from Section 295-C of the PPC.
The petitioner contended that the FSC case tilted “Muhammad Ismail Qureshi versus Pakistan through the law secretary(PLD 1991 FSC 10)” had declared the alternative punishment of life imprisonment provided in section 295-C PPC as violating Islamic doctrines.
FSC had directed the President of Pakistan to take action for amending the law before Apr 30, 1991. The petitioner said that it was a matter of concern for the people of Pakistan that the words “or imprisonment for life” in Section 295-C had not been deleted from the PPC by the lawmakers despite the passage of three decades.
Advocate Hameed said the said judgement was challenged before the Supreme Appellate Court but was dismissed due to non-prosecution.
HISTORY OF THE FSC JUDGEMENT
Additional Attorney General Aamir Javed said in pursuant to the said judgement of the FSC the Ministry of Law and Justice had forwarded a summary for approval of the cabinet for the introduction of an amendment bill to make changes in Section 295-C of the PPC with regard to the omission of the alternate punishment.
He said after approval of the cabinet the said bill was placed before the Upper House (Senate) in the year 1992 which was passed and under the Constitution, the same was sent to the Lower House (National Assembly).
Javed, however, said in the meantime the National Assembly was dissolved in the year 1993 and the pending bill got lapsed in terms of Article 76(2) of the Constitution.
He said a fresh process had to be initiated by the law ministry.
The AAG said it was expected that the ministry of law would re-submit the same before the cabinet division for onward proceeding as early as possible.
Additional Advocate General Sardar Ali Raza, representing the provincial government, said there was no bar under Article 143 of the Constitution for legislation by the provincial government or making amendments in the PPC.
He, however, said they were looking towards the federal government and if an amendment was made to Section 295-C of the PPC by the federal government, it would be applicable to the entire country.
BLASPHEMY LAWS WEAPONISED
If implemented, this amendment would further gravely endanger the lives of those accused of blasphemy. Reports confirm that blasphemy charges are often used to solve personal disputes; the fear and repercussions of that greatly increase on the off-chance of the FSC verdict being implemented.
Blasphemy trials are always at risk of being superceded by mob justice, or are marred by legal and procedural flaws. The accused are kept in custody for protracted periods and the trials risk the lives of the accused, their lawyers and judges at the hands of organised far-right groups. If this amendment is implemented, faulty verdicts will result in death sentences, rather than life imprisonment.
Drawing attention to the misuse of the blasphemy laws, Church of Pakistan Moderator/President Bishop Dr Azad 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.
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.