Time to end misuse of the blasphemy law

The latest case of blasphemy against two Christian nurses working in the Civil Hospital in Faisalabad, has reminded us how the blasphemy law continues to be misused against religious minorities in Pakistan. Civil line police have registered a case, under Section 295-B, against both nurses, Maryam Lal and Navish Urooj, due to pressure from the public and extremist groups. Both nurses have been sent to District Jail, Faisalabad.

The allegation should have been meticulously investigated by senior police officers first and if the allegations were proven, then a case should have been registered. But in such cases, especially against Christians and other religious minorities, standard protocols are hardly implemented, and instead decisions are taken to please the majority, setting the wrong precedent. It is not uncommon to see such treatment.

Despite having substantial evidence, and Waqas openly admitting to attacking Maryam, medical superintendent Dr Mirza Muhammad Ali and law enforcement agencies failed to take any action against him. In a viral video Waqas took pride in his actions and seemed distressed about his failed attempt to take Maryam’s life. The same video is flooded with eulogizing cheers from his colleagues commending his actions. There is not a single remorseful comment, despite the rampant disregard for the law and authorities.

In a separate incident, another Christian staff nurse, Tabeeta Gill, who worked in Karachi’s Sobhraj Maternity Hospital and was accused of committing blasphemy early this year in January, is believed to have been the target of a vendetta by a colleague. She was attacked and her life was threatened yet no one involved was ever questioned. The case is another exploitation of the blasphemous law.

The police investigation cleared her of the charges. But the accusation caused a local public uproar – Tabeeta Gill fell victim to attacks that put her life at risk. In the same manner that Maryam Lal’s attacker was not held accountable, no one batted an eye at the threats made to Tabeeta Gill’s life.

These two instances make it evident that people who misuse the accusation of blasphemy, take the law into their own hands, and commit criminal offences, are never held accountable. Their future is secure, while the victims are forced into isolation. It is not just that the accused lose their careers, their whole life comes to an end; they are pushed into darkness where they have no future.

Maryam and Navish were not lucky like Tabeeta. Given the past record of blasphemy cases, a fate of long imprisonment could be easily predicted. Sawan Masih was released after eight years, Asia Bibi after nine years, Imran Ghafoor after eleven years, and Wajih ul Hassan after eighteen years.

With the prevailing trend of hate and intolerance, coupled with the threats, intimidation and pressure on the judiciary, it has become nearly impossible to obtain a fair trial in Pakistan for those charged under the blasphemy law. The lower courts are often coerced to accuse and convict people without examining evidence.

False accusers and instigators of violence towards religious minorities live their lives with impunity. Although the issue has been discussed a couple of times, false accusations of blasphemy are not punishable by law. This has encouraged extremists and further strengthened the belief that they had done nothing wrong and had fulfilled their religious duties.

Unfortunately, the majority of Muslims believe that death or other harsh punishments are the only punishments for those who commit blasphemy. There are only a few who have a different opinion and have taken a strong position like Javed Ghamdi, Dr. Khalid Zaheer, and Dr. Khalid Masood a very few.

The country’s blasphemy laws in their present form have become a major source of victimization and persecution for minorities. Additionally, the law has been grossly abused to settle personal scores.
In Pakistan, accusing someone of blasphemy is a matter of one person’s word against other. It isn’t uncommon for chaos to transpire after accusation – mob lynching, burning down places of worship, and various acts of violence.

The blasphemy law has various articles, including Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), which states that the defilement of places of worship is punishable by a two-year prison sentence, a fine, or both. Section 295-B states: ‘Whoever willfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life’. Section 295-C states that the death penalty is the only punishment for those convicted of blasphemy involving the name of the Holy Prophet.

Although nobody has been executed officially, many people accused of blasphemy have been murdered by vigilantes before their trials in court.

In a country like Pakistan, where people are driven by their faith and religious emotions, this law is too dangerous – especially the vague language of section 295-C. The clause ‘any imputation, innuendo, insinuation, directly and indirectly’ can be translated in an extraordinarily loose way. However, people know the punishment for blasphemy is ‘death only penalty’, no matter which section a crime falls under. Unfortunately, there is no penalty for making a false allegation.

In the last several decades, extremist Islamic groups have grown so powerful that instead of the law governing their actions, it’s the other way around. The law has instilled fear across the whole nation while religious minorities see no future and living under constant fear of life. If these destructive trends continue, more people will be encouraged to persecute and victimize individuals and groups with impunity. Amending the blasphemy laws has been on the agenda of numerous secular parties. Yet, none have made progress because of the sensitivities over the subject.

Nearly 70 people have been lynched to death in Pakistan on blasphemy charges whereas since 1990 another 40 are currently on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy charges in Pakistan.

Now is a time to end the misuse of the blasphemy law. More lives are put at risk the longer that people choose to live in fear. This is not only a call for help by Pakistan’s religious minorities, but the international community has repeatedly called for changes. We must know our responsibility – internal affairs today can have serious international consequences.

 

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