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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Introducing: Pakistan's Blasphemy Laws


What is Blasphemy law?

Although Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are infamous within human rights circles, many people understandably do not know what they are, how they work, or whom they affect. Unfortunately these laws affect thousands of people across Pakistan, impeding freedom of expression and religion, and, in many cases, causing a threat to safety.

The official name of Pakistan is the "Islamic Republic of Pakistan", according to its constitution, and over 96% of its 167 million citizens (2008) are Muslims[i].  Among countries with a Muslim majority, Pakistan has the most restrictive anti-blasphemy laws. According to Article 2 of Pakistan’s constitution, Islam is the state religion, and by Article 31, it is the country's responsibility to cultivate and protect the Islamic way of life. This is the root of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

The ‘blasphemy laws’ comprise several sections of Pakistan’s Criminal Code, and are particularly non-specific and potentially all-encompassing: §298 criminalizes any action, gesture, word or sound committed with ‘the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person’, and § 295-A criminalizes ‘outraging religious feelings’. This broad scope makes these laws very easy to abuse, and can be used in personal disputes and vendettas.

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How does blasphemy law affect human rights?

Human Rights violations under the country’s abusive blasphemy law continue, and have been reported in research from various human rights organizations. In 2012 dozens of people were charged on new blasphemy cases, and at least 16 people remained on death row for blasphemy convictions. Another 20 served life sentences[ii]. Further to state sanctioned punishments and human rights violations, those accused of blasphemy and their families are also subjected to harassment, violence and stigmatization, and are at risk of being murdered by mobs or vigilantes. In many cases the Pakistani authorities have failed to adequately protect these vulnerable people, and even after acquittal persons accused of blasphemy often have to leave Pakistan and go in to hiding[iii]. In addition to this, those accused are subject to immediate incarceration and bail is often denied, in order to prevent the accused being attacked and murdered[iv].

From 1986 to 2007, Pakistan’s authorities charged 647 people with committing blasphemy offences[v]. Most notably religious minorities are disproportionately affected; 50% of those charged were non-Muslims, who represent only 3% of the national population[vi]. So far no judicial execution for a blasphemy conviction has ever occurred in Pakistan, but 20 people of those charged have been murdered [vii]. By 2010, the total number of people charged under these laws was around 1274[viii].  
The key concerns with Pakistan’s blasphemy laws as regards to human rights are:

·         No proof of intent is required, and arguably would be nearly impossible to establish.

·         No evidence is required to be presented following any accusations of blasphemy.

·         There are no penalties for allegations found to be false.

·         Accused individuals are often imprisoned without full investigation or proof and many spend years in incarceration without trial.

·         The laws are abused by religious extremists - a large number of accused individuals have been killed by various societal actors taking the law into their own hands.[ix]

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Who can be accused of Blasphemy?

In short, anyone can be accused. One of the focal problems with Pakistan’s blasphemy law is that, because it is so general, it can be easily abused: the groups of people most frequently accused of contravening this law are often physically, economically, socially, or mentally impaired, and vulnerable to abuse. For example, in July 2012, police arrested a man who appeared to suffer from a mental disability for allegedly burning the Quran. A mob organized by local clerics demanded that the man be handed to them, attacked the police station, pulled the victim out, and burned him alive.[x] Religious minorities are also susceptible to this persecution: in 2010 a Christian from Punjab province, Aasia Bibi, became the first woman in the country's history to be sentenced to death for blasphemy, and in 2012 she remained in prison[xi].

On August 17th 2012, Islamabad police took Rimsha Masih into custody, a 14-year-old Christian girl with a “significantly lower mental age” from an economically deprived Islamabad suburb[xii]. She was accused of burning pages of Quranic passages. A mob formed, demanding that it be handed the girl so that it could kill her; Police had to fight back the mob to prevent her murder. Threats against the local Christian community forced around 400 families to flee their homes[xiii]. The accuser, cleric Khalid Chishti, was arrested for fabricating evidence in an attempt to rid the community of Christians. Rimsha Masih was released On September 23rd, police officials stating they had found no evidence against her. She was given state protection at an undisclosed location, and in 2013 was granted permanent immigration status in Canada[xiv].

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Who else does it affect?

Blasphemy laws do not only affect those accused of blaspheming; judges, lawyers and police are also at risk of threats of violence, intimidation and attacks when having dealt with a blasphemy allegation[xv]. Similarly, anyone who publicly opposes or challenges blasphemy laws is likely to face the same intimidation and violence. An accusation of blasphemy can also precede rioting and demonstrations, during which many people can be injured[xvi]. Prominent figures like Salman Taseer (the former governor of Punjab) and Shahbaz Bhatti (the Federal Minister for Minorities) have been assassinated for their opposition to the blasphemy laws. In part because of this the civilian government in Pakistan has not changed the laws, as they fear a response from the religious groups in Pakistan if they propose an amendment.

How is it progressing?

Pakistan’s blasphemy law has also extended its reach to the internet, with access to certain websites and search engines restricted or blocked entirely.  In May 2010, for example, Pakistan blocked access to Facebook because the website hosted a page called ‘Everybody Draw Muhammad Day’. Pakistan lifted the block after Facebook prevented access to the page. In June 2010, Pakistan blocked seventeen websites for hosting content that the authorities considered offensive to Muslims. At the same time, Pakistan began to monitor the content of GoogleYahoo, YouTube, AmazonMSNHotmail, and Bing[xvii].

What can I do?

GHRD has worked with grassroots projects and small partner organizations to promote and protect human rights in Pakistan. In 2013 GHRD made a documentary entitled ‘Pakistan: A Defining Moment’, covering, amongst other things, human rights violations resulting from the country’s blasphemy laws. We are trying to take the documentary on tour around universities to engage young people and encourage them to write to the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom or Belief, pushing for further action and protection for Pakistan’s religious minorities and human rights defenders.  But we need your help! Visit our campaign, contribute whatever you can to this amazing project, share the campaign and spread the word! Be a part of the solution for Pakistan.

[i] "Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination considers report of Pakistan". Press Release. United Nations. 20 February 2009. Retrieved 27 June 2009.

[ii] “World Report 2013: Events of 2012”. Human Rights Watch. United States of America. 2013.

[iii]  "Lahore’s ‘blasphemy’ teacher in hiding'". Dawn. 2 November 2012. Retrieved 24 November 2012.

[v] "Christians often victims under Pakistan's blasphemy law". The Evangelization Station. FIDES/CWNews. 13 May 2005. Retrieved 22 June 2009.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] "Pakistan: Use and abuse of blasphemy laws". AI Index: ASA 33/008/1994. Amnesty International. 27 July 1994. Retrieved 19 February 2010. 

[viii] Siddiqi, Tabinda (19 Sep 2012). "Timeline: Accused under the Blasphemy Law". Dawn. Retrieved 7 November 2012.

[ix] GHRD/HRFP joint submission to the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review of Pakistan,

14th session of the Working Group on the UPR (22 October - 5 November 2012)

[x] “World Report 2013: Events of 2012”. Human Rights Watch. United States of America. 2013.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.


[xvi] The Associated Press (1 August 2009). "6 Pakistani Christians die in riots with Muslims". Toronto Star.

[xvii] "Pakistan to monitor Google and Yahoo for 'blasphemy'". BBC News. 25 June 2010.