Blasphemy law, capital punishment and psychological loopholes

    In Pakistan, a country struggling with multiple issues pertaining to the protection of any and every minority group, particularly the vulnerable religious minorities, women, and the transgender community, there is one segment of society that is conveniently overlooked time and again.

    I am referring here to those who are psychologically unwell and may or may not be seeking treatment for it. The problem is that such individuals may not necessarily appear different at first glance. It is important to understand that their physical growth could be absolutely perfect but their social and emotional functioning could be severely impaired. Since Pakistanis generally do not discuss mental health and are mostly in denial of its prevalence, it is easy to turn a blind eye toward this group of people.

    Problems arise when these individuals are convicted of committing a crime that they may not have intended to. Recently, a married young woman in Karachi was arrested for setting fire to a copy of the Holy Quran. According to media reports, the woman was carrying the holy book in one hand and a knife in the other hand. This incident attracted an entire mob that wanted to take matters into its own hands.

    READ MORE: The dilemma of blasphemy accusations in Pakistan

    Fortunately, the police was able to control the situation but it registered a complaint against the woman under Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) which states that, “Whoever willfully defiles damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Quran or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.”

    There are a number of issues that need to be addressed here.

    According to Dawn, the husband of the accused has claimed that she is mentally unwell and has been seeking treatment for the same. The Express Tribune reported that she gave some odd responses to a number of questions she was asked. For instance, when asked about where she resides, she answered “Dadu” which is a district in Sindh province, 340 km from Karachi, even though local police said she was from the Khamiso Goth area of the port city. When she was reportedly asked why she had desecrated the holy book, she said she was a Jew and Muslims don’t like Jews.

    The accused’s responses do not appear to be coherent or meaningful. Further, it is worth imploring that what individual in their right state of mind would commit such an act? And that too publicly, on an open road? There is no doubt that more information is required with regard to the mental state of the accused before a judgement about her punishment is passed.

    As far as the execution of blasphemy laws is concerned, there needs to be a specific clause addressing individuals who are mentally unwell. For a law that is already very rigid and is often misused, it is important to at least address these loopholes to ensure that no one is victimised.

    READ MORE: Hyderabad blasphemy accused declared ‘mentally unstable’

    What is more disturbing here is mob psychology. The mob in Karachi tried to kill the woman by setting her on fire in the middle of the road, shedding light on the wave of religious extremism persisting across the country.

    According to Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) in 2021 alone, 84 people were charged with blasphemy. In most cases, a mob gets involved almost immediately and before the police can take any action, kills the individual. According to statistics, 1,860 individuals have been charged under the country’s blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2021 with 128 people being murdered by vigilantes without any legal proceedings.

    Last year, Sri Lankan national Priyantha Kumara was killed by a hostile crowd in Sialkot over alleged blasphemy for removing posters of a hardliner religio-political party inscribed with an Islamic prayer. He was lynched and later his body was set ablaze. In February this year, a mentally unstable man was tortured to death by an enraged mob in Mian Channu. These are just two examples of mob justice in alleged cases of blasphemy.

    Here it is important to understand why mobs feel obligated to deliver a guilty verdict and carry out the execution. Firstly, they believe with utmost conviction that their religion is superior to the other. When such extremism is a part of society, there is little hope for the welfare of minority groups. Secondly, mobs are willing to believe in hearsay as far as blasphemy allegations are concerned. Obviously, an entire mob is never an eyewitness to said actions of the accused but becomes readily available to torture and kill anyone who allegedly hurts their sentiments.

    READ MORE: Supreme Court directs govt to exercise ‘utmost care’ in blasphemy probes

    While all this is rooted in the general frustration that we as a nation are experiencing, to better understand mob justice in such cases, it is also important to recognise the country’s blasphemy laws and loopholes that are often used to settle personal scores or incite violence against voiceless victims.

    Rights activists have time and again stressed the need for certain amendments to these laws. According to CSJ Executive Director Peter Jacob, there are three key points for a legislative review:

    1) A clearer definition of the offense

    2) Explicit mention of exceptions like minors and individuals with intellectual disabilities

    3) Solid proof of evidence i.e. a proof beyond doubt given that these cases have grave consequences.

    4) Stricter punishments for those who level fake allegations of blasphemy

    He emphasised that the government should raise awareness by adding peace education and non-violent communication to the curriculum for people to follow. With regard to mobs, Jacob said there must be some sort of consequences for people who take law into their own hands.

    This would ensure that people, regardless of how religiously charged they are, refrain from such actions.

    Finally, I would add that education regarding mental illnesses is also an important topic and the general lack of understanding about it is simply owed to the lack of awareness and a general denial. It is important to start speaking up and having a dialogue on these issues. I believe that is the only ray of hope for our nation in these trying times.

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