Islamabad: Blasphemy laws can be reviewed by the country’s top Islamic law authority, Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) if parliament seeks recommendations for reforming the laws, says Chairman of CII.
Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani, Chairman of CII, in his exclusive chat with News Lens Pakistan said, “We cannot review the law on our own. Our mandate to review the law begins when parliament seeks our advice under article 229.”
Conditionally, there are rays of hopes of a breakthrough in reforming Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, fatally misused against Muslims and non-Muslim minorities.
A detailed report compiled by Osama Siddique and Zahra Hayat titled “Unholy Speech and Holy Laws: Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan— Controversial Origins, Design Defects, and Free Speech Implications” pointed out that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws carry a potential death sentence for anyone who insults Islam.
First, it states that the offences pertaining to religion were codified by India’s British rulers in 1860 but those were extended in 1927. The country inherited these laws in 1947.
However, late dictator Gen. Ziaul Haq added a number of clauses between 1980 and 1986.
Under the blasphemy laws, it is a crime to perturb a religious gathering, trample, defile or destroy a worship place. Under these laws, punishment ranges from one to 10 years jail.
It states that since 1980, the sacrilegious laws were expanded at various stages. During those years, disrespectful remarks against Islamic personages were declared offence, which will lead to three years prison term.
Again in 1982, willful desecration of Holy Koran will lead to life imprisonment. Separately in 1986, another clause was added to penalize sacrilege against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), with death sentence or life imprisonment.
“We will definitely review it and give our recommendations,” reiterated the outspoken Sherani who survived a suicide attack in 2009 in Pishin district of Balochistan province.
Media reports that that attack left five people dead and many injured. Sherani openly condemns terrorism and criticizes the terror groups.
Since 1987, the data by National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) reveals as many as 633 Muslims, 187 Christians, 21 Hindus and 494 Ahmedis are accused under difference clauses of blasphemy laws.
According to official and other estimates, the religious minority demographic of Pakistan’s population is 3.7 per cent (an estimated six million). There are Hindus and Christians with approximately 30,000 Sikhs, 20,000 Buddhists, 1,822 Parsis (Zoroastrians), and 600,000 Ahmadis (an exact estimate is difficult to obtain because of their reluctance to register as non-Muslims in the census). Other religious groups are Bhais, Kalasha, Kihals and Jains.
The report compiled by Osama Siddique and Zahra Hayat stated these laws continue to be a cause of grave concern because of their patent defects of form and procedure, which are exacerbated by Pakistan’s current social and political milieu.
In effect, it said that the blasphemy laws, in their current form, are an instance of legislation inherently open to exploitation, operating in an environment that is at times unfortunately conducive to that misuse.
Punishment ranges from one year imprisonment to death sentence under the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). According to PPC, under article 298, uttering of any word or making any sound or making any gesture or placing of any object in the sight with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person.
Similarly, under article 298A, use of derogatory remarks in respect of holy personages, article, 298B misuse of epithets, descriptions and titles etc., reserved for certain holy personages or places.
Article 295 PPC says that injuring or defiling places of worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class and 295A deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.
Article 295B says that defiling, etc., of Quran and 295C says that use of derogatory remarks, spoken, written, directly or indirectly, etc. defiles the name of Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).
Back in July 2014, media reports that a woman and her two female relatives were killed by religious zealots in Gujranwala after they were blamed of posting a sacrilegious post on Facebook.
They were the members of Ahmadi sect, a community that considers themselves Muslims but is constitutionally declared beyond the fold of Islam.
The mob ransacked some buildings and the accused homes after a rumour that a member of the community had put up an image of the Kaaba, the structure at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, allegedly containing nudity.
Similarly in March 2011, Pakistan’s minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti was gunned down by unidentified gunmen in Islamabad.
Bhatti was advocating reforming the blasphemy laws. The assassins left pamphlets after killing Bhatti in which they declared him a “Christian infidel.”
The same year, Salman Taseer, then governor of Punjab province, was shot dead by his own bodyguard in Islamabad. Then minister of interior Rehman Malik had told media that Taseer was killed because of his criticism of blasphemy laws.
However, Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Taseer, was hanged in February 2016 at a prison in Rawalpindi.
But the Council of Islamic Ideology, Sherani said, has given recommendations in this respect according to which if someone, accused of committing blasphemy, is not proved guilty in court then the accuser will be punished because he had lied.
When asked did he notice that the law is being misused, Sherani only said, “It is up to the courts to decide if the blasphemy law is being misused or not.”
Wishing anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, a senior member of Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam (F) said that secular parties such as Pakistan Peoples’ Party want to amend the blasphemy laws but no progress could be made because of certain reasons such as its sensitivity or antagonizing religious circles.
Only once in 2010, Sherry Rehman, then lawmaker of PPP presented a bill in the parliament to amend the blasphemy laws. However, in February 2011, the bill had to be withdrawn following pressure by religious parties.
The member of Uamiat Ulam-e-Islam (F) acknowledged that “anyone can use it against non-Muslim to settle political scores or personal enmity.”
In May 2015, hundreds of religious zealots took to the streets in Lahore to mount attack on a church. They also looted houses following alleged desecration of Holy Quran by a member of a Christian community, media reports.
Humayon, the accused, was blamed of setting pages of Quran on fire after, and then he was handed over to the police.
Reema Omer, a legal advisor, in her article stated that judges hearing blasphemy cases are often “threatened and harassed” to convict the suspects.
Her article stated that a number of judges complained of receiving threats of attacks if defendants in blasphemy cases are acquitted.
In 2012 following her visit to Pakistan, the UN special rapporteur on the independence of the judiciary said judicial independence was under threat in blasphemy cases as judges were “pressured to decide against the accused.”
Muhammad Idrees, a cloth merchant in Rawalpindi, said that every Muslim has matchless love and respect for Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) but the blasphemy law should not be misused.
“I think the government and the Council of Islamic Ideology should review the law to make sure that it is not misused,” Idrees remarked.
Another religious leader from Shiite sect wishing to go unnamed because of sensitivity of the matter said: “The law should be reviewed by the concerned stakeholders and amend with mutual consensus.”