The Senate of Pakistan has approved a bill seeking to increase the punishment for using derogatory remarks against revered personalities — including the Holy Prophet’s family, wives and companions, and the four caliphs — from three years of imprisonment to at least 10 years in jail.
The bill, titled The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2023, was passed by the National Assembly in January in the presence of just 15 lawmakers.
In February, Human Rights Minister Riaz Hussain Pirzada had suggested Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to undo the amendments, saying their purpose was to “please a specific group” and they were approved without “fulfilling the norms of parliamentary proceedings”.
In a letter to the premier, Pirzada had said the state had a duty to protect religious minorities as it was an Islamic injunction as well as a constitutional obligation.
“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 said.
Six months later, the bill was passed by the Senate after Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Senator Hafiz Abdul Karim presented it. The Senate agenda also mentioned Jamaat-i-Islami’s Senator Mushtaq Ahmad as a mover of the bill.
In his argument in favour of the legislation, Ahmad maintained that acts of blasphemy were being witnessed on social media. He highlighted that the current law was somewhat “ineffective” and the bill aimed to fine-tune it to make it more effective.
“This bill should be passed unanimously,” he asserted.
Similarly, Religious Affairs Minister Senator Talha Mahmood maintained that the bill did not hurt anyone’s sentiments and that it should be passed unanimously.
However, some members of the House, prominently Pakistan People’s Party’s Sherry Rehman, insisted that the bill should be referred to the relevant committee for review.
“There’s an inclination of passing bills in haste,” Rehman pointed out, adding that they had not even seen the bill. “We do care about the respect of all prophets … but a bill should not be passed without analysis in the name of religion,” she said.
But Karim insisted that the bill be put to vote.
Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani then sought votes on the bill, following which it was passed.
The bill suggests an amendment to Section 298-A of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), which currently states: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of any wife (ummul mumineen), or members of the family (ahl-i-bait) of the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him), or any of the righteous caliphs (khulafa-i-rashideen) or companions (sahaaba) of the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”
The bill seeks to amend this clause to say that the penalty for this offence is “imprisonment for life which shall not be less than 10 years”.
Likewise, the bill proposes amendments in the Code of Criminal Procedure’s Second Schedule, to say that a “warrant” should ordinarily be issued for a suspect in the first instance of the offence elaborated in Section 298-A of the PPC, declare the offence non-bailable, increase the punishment to at least 10 years of imprisonment and state that the suspects alleged of the offence should be tried by a “court of sessions”.
Moreover, the bill’s statement of objectives and reasons highlights that some individuals are involved in “blasphemy on the internet and social media”, and that acts of disrespect towards revered personalities, including the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) companions, were a cause of “terrorism”, “disruption in the country” and hurt to people from all walks of life.
It terms the current punishment for the offence “simple”, adding that it led to people punishing the suspects on their own, leading to an increase in violence.
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.