The Ravages of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law
Photo Description: Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, assassinated in 2011
The current case of Rimsha Masih displays all that is wrong with Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law.
Rimsha, believed to be between 10 and 13 years old, comes from an impoverished Christian family living near the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. She reportedly suffers from Down Syndrome. Rimsha was accused of burning pages with Koranic passages, and police took her into custody for her own protection on August 17 after she was reportedly assaulted. According to local sources, protests against her teetered toward violence, with a mob demanding that police turn her over to be killed. Threats against the Christian community were also made, forcing almost 400 families to flee to other parts of the capital and driving the girl’s own family into hiding.
In response, police filed more than 150 first information reports against protesters who damaged property and threatened violence. President Asif Ali Zardari has taken notice of the case and asked for an explanation of the arrest. An influential group of Islamic leaders has also come out in her support, a positive development that will be critical if she is to be released and the ongoing abuses addressed. For the time being, however, Rimsha remains behind bars.
The blasphemy law, one of the legacies of former dictator General Zia ul-Haq, is ripe for abuse. His regime added to the penal code severe punishments for blasphemy and other activities deemed insulting to Islam. Article 295, Section B, makes defiling the Koran punishable by life imprisonment. Under Section C of the same article, remarks found to be “derogatory” against the Prophet Mohammed carry the death penalty.
The law has no evidentiary standard, no requirement to prove intent, and no procedural safeguards to penalize false allegations. It provides no guidance on what constitutes a blasphemous activity, meaning the standard is essentially whatever offends the accuser. In addition, blasphemy offenses are considered cognizable, so that the police file charges and can arrest without a warrant. And blasphemy is a noncompoundable crime, a category that does not allow for out-of-court settlements. Consequently, once a charge is filed, it is difficult for the case to be quashed, and the accuser cannot simply drop the charges.
Rimsha is not the first victim of this law, and she likely won’t be the last. While the state has not executed anyone for blasphemy, the law has created a climate of vigilantism, resulting in accused individuals being murdered by societal actors or killed while in police custody. A gruesome example took place in July, when a Muslim man suspected of blasphemy was pulled from a police station and killed by a mob, which then burned his body with gasoline.
For those who aren’t murdered after being accused, blasphemy allegations have resulted in nonfatal violence and lengthy detentions or prison terms. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) knows of least 16 people who are on death row for blasphemy and at least 20 others who are serving life sentences. Many more are in jail awaiting trial or appeal. More cases are reportedly brought against members of the Muslim majority than adherents of any other faith group, although religious minorities like Christians, Hindus, and Ahmadis are accused at a rate disproportionate to their tiny share of the population.
It is worth noting that while the case of Rimsha occurred near Islamabad, nearly two-thirds of all blasphemy cases are reportedly filed in Punjab Province. Simply put, this is not just a federal problem, but one that the Punjab government must also confront.
Pakistan’s blasphemy law must be repealed or significantly reformed. Before Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer and Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti were murdered in early 2011 for criticizing the law, reform was being discussed. After the murders, officials stated that reform was off the table, while assuring everyone that they would no longer permit the abuse of the blasphemy law.
Clearly the abuse continues. The Rimsha travesty is a case in point. But it also serves as a reminder to the world of the other egregious violations of religious freedom that occur regularly in Pakistan.
In the past year, Shi’a Muslims have been targeted for attack repeatedly. In August, 25 people from Gilgit-Baltistan were pulled from a bus and shot dead after militants realized they were Shi’a based on their identity cards. Ahmadis also continue to suffer discrimination and abuse. In July alone, the president of a local Ahmadi community outside Karachi was murdered, Punjab police demolished the minarets of an Ahmadi mosque and removed the Islamic creed, and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority banned a major Ahmadi website. Hindus too are among the victims of Pakistan’s climate of intolerance. The forced conversion and marriage of Hindu girls has increased in Sindh Province, and upwards of 250 Pakistani Hindus from Sindh and Balochistan Province have migrated to India over the past year to avoid increasing violence.
In light of Pakistan’s systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, USCIRF has repeatedly recommended that the U.S. government designate it a “country of particular concern.” While complicating the bilateral relationship, the designation would concentrate the minds of Pakistani officials on issues that, left unaddressed, threaten to tear Pakistan apart. CPC designation aside, Pakistan, to quote USCIRF’s Annual Report, should “repeal the blasphemy law, immediately release those detained on blasphemy charges, and unconditionally pardon all individuals convicted of blasphemy,” and “ensure that those accused of blasphemy, their defenders and individuals willing to testify against such charges, and trial judges are given adequate protection.”
Pakistan’s blasphemy law sits at the intersection of vertical governmental repression and horizontal societal violence, with the two feeding off each other to create a cycle of suffering and cruelty. For the sake of stability, security, and freedom, Pakistan must take action now.
* Knox Thames is the director of policy and research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed here are his own and may or may not reflect the views of the commission. He can be followed on Twitter @thames22.