False allegations imperil minorities as Pakistan strengthens blasphemy laws

    A government official was earlier this month caught on camera threatening a Christian woman security official with false accusations of blasphemy over a parking dispute, exposing the risk facing vulnerable communities in their everyday life.

    The incident took place when the woman, later identified as Civil Aviation Authority’s vigilance in-charge Samina Mushtaq, tried to stop an unauthorised vehicle from entering the cargo area at the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi. This infuriated her fellow employee, Saleem, who asked her to allow him to park the vehicle in the airport parking area otherwise he would give the incident a “colour of blasphemy”.

    A viral video showed when Saleem uttered the word ‘blasphemy’, the woman official told him that he was free to implicate a ‘Christian’ woman in a blasphemy case but in fact, it was he who was committing disrespect to his religion.

    With the video of the spat going viral and drawing strong reactions from the masses in general, and political leadership in particular, Saleem was suspended from duty.

    However, the incident that marked the start of the new year, especially for Pakistan’s vulnerable religious minorities, was not the first of its kind.

    READ MORE: The dilemma of blasphemy accusations in Pakistan

    Pakistan has a long history of misuse of blasphemy laws, which has been a source of contention between religious and secular forces in the country. The laws, which date back to the British colonial era, criminalise certain acts — punishable by death or life imprisonment — including those deemed to be blasphemous towards the Holy Prophet (PBUH), his family and companions.

    However, they continue to be misused with the aim to persecute religious minorities, settle personal scores and stifle free speech. In recent years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of blasphemy cases and mob violence related to these laws, resulting in the extrajudicial killings of at least 85 people since 1987.

    In 2015, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) published a study, wherein it concluded on the basis of available evidence that trials for blasphemy in Pakistan were fundamentally unfair.

    “Pakistan’s blasphemy laws fly in the face of Pakistan’s international legal obligations, including the duties to respect the rights of freedom of expression and freedom of religion and belief,” noted the then Asia director of the ICJ, Sam Zarifi.

    “But even worse, those facing accusations of blasphemy suffer through trials that are often fundamentally unfair,” he said.

    The government of Pakistan has been under pressure from human rights groups, activists, and international organisations to reform the blasphemy laws and bring an end to violence as witnessed in the case of Priyantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan national killed by a frenzied mob over a false accusation of blasphemy in Sialkot in 2021.

    But efforts to do so have been met with resistance from hardliner groups and politicians.

    READ MORE: Pakistan’s political parties don’t walk their talk on minority rights

    One of Pakistan’s most high-profile blasphemy cases was that of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who spent eight years on death row after being falsely accused of blasphemy by her Muslim neighbours. Despite her acquittal in 2018 by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Asia had to flee the country for her safety.

    With the case sparking international outrage and flaws in said laws being highlighted, it has time and again prompted religious and political leaderships of the minority communities as well as rights groups to demand stricter punishment for false accusations of blasphemy as opposed to the existing maximum punishment of six months or a mere Rs1,000 fine.

    “We continue to urge the state to introduce harsher punishments for false accusers of a crime that carries the death sentence for the accused, but it seems the government is under a lot of pressure from right-wing religious groups to which it has repeatedly capitulated over the past few years,” says Church of Pakistan Moderator Bishop Dr Azad Marshall.

    Praising Samina Mushtaq for her courage, Bishop Marshall says he believes the unfortunate incident might not be the last of its kind. “Samina’s bravery despite threats of severe consequences saved her life. But it pains me to say that such incidents would continue to occur as long as the instigators enjoy the patronage of the government,” he adds, hinting at reports claiming that the woman officer was being forced to reconcile with Saleem.

    On the ever-increasing numbers of blasphemy cases reported in Pakistan every year, Bishop Azad reiterates the need to introduce a deterrence for curtailing bogus allegations as breathing room for Pakistan’s vulnerable religious minorities.

    READ MORE: Pakistani minorities & 2022: A look back

    Lahore-based Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) notes that at least 1,949 persons were accused under the blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2021.

    Another 18 cases were reported till July 14, 2022. The victims included 47.62 per cent Muslims, followed by 32.99 per cent Ahmadis, 14.42 per cent Christians, and 2.15 per cent Hindus, while the religion of 2.82 per cent is not confirmed.

    CSJ Executive Director Peter Jacob says that at a time when the entire world is advising Pakistan to take steps towards protecting its vulnerable groups, the country is being steered towards even darker times.

    “An example of this is the recent amendments to Section 298-A of the blasphemy laws proposing stricter punishment for blasphemy under the provision. The bill sailed through the National Assembly without resistance or even a discussion to determine its possible consequences,” he says.

    Section 298-A of the PPC pertains to the defiling of the name of any wife (Ummul Mumineen) or members of the family (Ahle Bait) of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), or any of the Caliphs (Khulafa Raashideen) or companions (Sahaaba) of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).

    Legal experts believe the recent amendments to the provision would further tighten the noose around religious minorities and certain sectarian groups repeatedly accused of committing blasphemy against companions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).

    “Around 300 blasphemy accused are already locked up in prisons across Punjab alone. It is no secret that most of these cases are based on lies of those who resort to false accusations to settle personal disputes,” Jacob says.

    He adds that all provisions of the country’s blasphemy laws have a background rooted in the socio-political landscapes of the time they were enacted, and it was unfortunate that prestigious institutions such as the parliament were keen on fuelling the fire of religious extremism instead of bringing out much-needed reforms.

    The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also expressed its “deep concern” over the latest legislation.

    “Given Pakistan’s troubled record of the misuse of such laws, these amendments are likely to be weaponized disproportionately against religious minorities and sects, resulting in false charges, harassment, and persecution,” the group said in a statement.

    The commission said increasing the penalty for alleged blasphemy will aggravate misuse of the law to settle personal vendettas, as is often the case with blasphemy allegations.

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