| Photo Credit: Khuda Bux Abro
The case of Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman sentenced to death under Pakistan’s ‘blasphemy’ laws, and the 4 January assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who supported her and advocated amendment of these laws, has re-focused attention on this three-decade-old legislation. During those years, a substantial number of victims of these laws have been sent to death row (though no executions have actually taken place) by the lower courts, while many elderly individuals, including women, have also been forced to languish in prison while awaiting related trials or appeals. From half a dozen cases in 1992, the year after the bill’s passage, over 4000 individuals currently find themselves accused under these laws.
In another case, a woman, Razia Bibi, was forced to remain in detention without trial for nearly a decade and half. Eventually, an activist who learned of her ordeal moved the Lahore High Court; when the chief justice subsequently ordered her release, he made special note that the case had been an ‘affront to humanity’. Such incidents could be drastically minimised if civil-society organisations were accorded access to Pakistani prisons. While Pakistan’s representative claimed before the UN Human Rights Council in late 2010 that such access was available, in fact it is only top bureaucrats who are generally allowed to do so. This is a significant problem, given the highly contentious use of this legislation to detain people; only if civil-society organisations have such access can they effectively take up the cases.
As highlighted in the ongoing trial of Aasia Bibi and in the aftermath of the killing of Salman Taseer – in which fundamentalists have offered cash awards for the murder of the former, and vociferous public support has been voiced for the assassination of the latter – Pakistan has been taken hostage by extremists and their patrons (see ‘Standing up’). Muslim fanatics today feel empowered by the blasphemy laws, which were imposed by General Zia ul-Haq but were made more stringent during civilian reign; today, they continue to remain untouched by otherwise proactive superior courts. As late as 12 January, a week after Taseer’s assassination, Prime Minster Yousuf Raza Gillani stated that there would be no revision to the laws – and his home minister, Rehman Malik, told the media that he would shoot any person who dared to commit blasphemy in front of him.
Blasphemy or enmity?
Even though introduced during Gen Zia’s regime, the five amendments to the penal code that constitute the blasphemy legislation have their roots in the so-called Objectives Resolution (as well as in early colonial-era legislation). This was authored by Zia’s ideological mentor, Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi (a member of the cabinet headed by Liaquat Ali Khan, the first prime minister of Pakistan), from his pre-Partition days at St Stephen’s College in Delhi. The Objectives Resolution, which made Islam central in the new constitution, was adopted shortly after the death of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, with the specific intent of negating Jinnah’s earlier declaration that the elected head of the state would have nothing to do with religion – that issues of faith were personal ones for every citizen.
Most controversial among the five amendments is Section 295-C, which deals with ‘derogatory remarks’ about the Prophet Muhammad. It reads:
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 the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.
The alternative punishment of life imprisonment along with the death penalty was retained in an act passed by the National Assembly in 1986. Yet four years later, this was rejected by the Federal Sharia Court (FSC) as ‘repugnant’ to Islam. (Interestingly, the FSC was also the product of the mind of Ishtiaq Qureshi, established as a parallel system in 1979 by the Zia regime.) The FSC also directed the government to amend the law, while holding that it would lose its efficacy starting in April 1991. The government subsequently rushed through the requested amendment, but only partially, deleting the reference to life imprisonment as the alternative to death sentence.
| Roots of blasphemy: Zia’s ideological mentor, Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi
Although Gen Zia’s amendments were carried out to appease the religio-political parties, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, in the hands of fanatics among sectarian Muslims they have become an extremely potent tool. Since amendment to allow only the death penalty in cases of ‘derogatory remarks’ about the Prophet Muhammad, Section 295-C has been regularly used in settling all sorts of private scores under the garb of blasphemy. While members of non-Muslim minority communities, especially Christians and Ahmadis, are the prime targets of the blasphemy laws, many cases have also been filed against members of the officially recognised Muslim sects, often charged to settle private arguments. In addition, extrajudicial means have taken place, with mullahs ‘punishing’ individuals who have been accused of blasphemy. Such actions have included arson and looting of properties, as well as murder.
Although perhaps the most notorious, Sec 295-C was one of five amendments made to the penal code. Others (including Sec 295-B, 298-A, 298-B and 298-C) were highly indicative of what Zia was hoping to inflict under his so-called Islamic system. Starting in 1982, for instance, Section 295-B imposed life sentences for anyone convicted of ‘defiling’ the Quran. The wide scope of this amendment makes it fairly easy for accusers to register cases, particularly against individuals of already-persecuted religious-minority communities.
Two years earlier, in 1980, the regime had already added 298-A, a broad ordinance against the use of ‘derogatory remarks, etc’ about any ‘holy personage’. Today, this amendment is included almost in every case alleging blasphemy. In 1984, another Amendment to the same section was passed – Section 298-B, which specifically focuses on the Ahmadi community. The exact language outlaws the ‘Misuse of epithets, descriptions and titles, etc, reserved for certain holy personages or places’. But it then proceeds to single out ‘Any person of Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves ‘Ahmadis’ or by any other name)’ who uses religious language to refer to anyone other than the Prophet Muhammad, his wife and members of his family. Section 298-B also prohibits individuals from this community from referring to ‘his place of worship as “Masjid”’ or refers to ‘call to prayers followed by his faith as “Azan” or recites Azan as used by the Muslims’. Incredibly, a second anti-Ahmadi amendment was also included in 1984, which forbids Ahmadis to ‘refer[ring] to his faith as Islam’.
The induction of an amended Sec 295-C came about in the wake of the Federal Sharia Court verdict regarding the removal of the ‘life term’ alternative, thus leaving the death penalty to be the only punishment available under blasphemy cases. This was quickly followed by the registration of blasphemy cases and the subsequent awarding of death sentences. In 1992, Akhtar Hameed Khan, a revered sociologist and civil-society leader, was among the first targets of the tweaked legislation, though he was later acquitted by the courts. The same year, well-known journalist Abdullah Malik’s two-decade-old published account of his pilgrimage to Mecca became the object of a propaganda blitz for blasphemy; Malik was branded ‘Pakistan’s Salman Rushdie’. The worst victim of that year, however, was a Christian teacher named Naemat Ahmar, of Faisalabad, who was murdered by a fanatical Muslim youth. The murder was the first since Partition to be publicly applauded by the orthodoxy. Another was a Muslim convert to Christianity who was charged with blasphemy as there was no law against conversion.
These discriminatory acts are today bearing sour fruit for the citizens of Pakistan, particularly for the non-Muslim minorities, which constitute barely five percent of the population. Now, when some of the leading political parties are finding it necessary to rationalise these laws, they are faced with noisy vocal opposition from the religio-political activists, particularly in the Punjab. Though the struggle by rights groups continues, the political parties have sadly fallen silent – and in the wake of the Salman Taseer assassination, even stepped back.
~ Husain Naqi is a freelance columnist and human-rights activist in Lahore.