Federal Minister for Human Rights Riaz Hussain Pirzada has urged Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to undo the recent amendments to the blasphemy law, saying it done to “please a specific group” and approved by the National Assembly without “fulfilling the norms of parliamentary proceedings”.
The minister was referring to an amendment approved by the National Assembly on Jan 17 in the presence of just 15 lawmakers.
In a letter to PM Shehbaz, Pirzada wrote that the State had a duty to protect religious minorities as it was an Islamic injunction as well as a constitutional obligation.
He raised concern over the method adopted in the National Assembly to pass the bill for amendment in Section 298-A of the Criminal Act 2021.
Section 298-A 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).
“Minority groups have raised their eyebrows on ignoring a good practice in parliamentary business followed for amending a law to eliminate technical defects rather intending to persecute a specific group,” the letter stated.
Pirzada added that this bill was tabled and approved by the lower house without fulfilling constitutional requirements like quorum and a meaningful debate by standing committees.
Proposed by Maulana Abdul Akbar Chitrali of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the amendment has raised the punishment for uttering derogatory remarks against revered personalities from three years imprisonment to 10. Furthermore, the amendment has made the offence non-bailable.
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.
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.
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 percent Muslims, followed by 32.99 percent Ahmadis, 14.42 percent Christians, and 2.15 percent Hindus, while the religion of 2.82 percent is not confirmed.
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,” said Peter Jacob, executive director of CSJ.
He added 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.