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Editorial: Christians among those at risk as Pakistan government strengthens “blasphemy” law

27 June 2023

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Fourteen years ago this month, Pakistani Christian and young mother Aasia Bibi was charged under Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) Section 295-C with “blasphemy” for allegedly defiling the name of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

If those charges were being brought against Aasia today, she would also find herself charged as a terrorist.

That is the result of an agreement reached earlier this month between Pakistan’s coalition government and the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, an Islamist opposition party, which includes the strengthening of Pakistan’s notorious “blasphemy” laws.

Aasia Bibi spent nearly eight years on death row after being convicted of “blasphemy” against Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. She was acquitted in October 2018. If Aasia was being accused today she would face additional terrorism charges 

The agreement is wide ranging, but the provisions relating to “blasphemy” come down to three points: (1) that those charged with making “derogatory” remarks about Muhammad under PPC 295-C will additionally be charged under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act (1997); (2) that the government will establish a Counter Blasphemy Department; (3) that the trials of those accused of “blasphemy” will be sped up.

Each of these developments places Christians and other religious minorities at increased risk.

Additional terror charges could increase likelihood of “blasphemy” executions

Section 295 of the PPC includes several articles – for example, 295-B stipulates life imprisonment for anybody who “wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates” a Quran or an extract from the Quran.

It is 295-C that focuses on defiling the name of Muhammad, and it is those accused of this form of “blasphemy” specifically who will also find themselves facing terrorism charges.

It is not yet clear what terrorism charges will apply, but Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act already includes the “Prohibition of acts intended or likely to stir up sectarian hatred”. The punishment for this offence is a maximum five-year prison sentence along with an unspecified fine.

On paper, therefore, the additional terrorism charges could mean little. The penalty for “blasphemy” against Muhammad is already – according to a 1991 constitutional court decision – death.

Yet the death sentence for “blasphemy” has never been applied. Several have been sentenced to death – including Aasia Bibi, who spent nearly eight years on death row before her acquittal – but nobody has been executed.

The danger of the additional terrorism charges is that characterising “blasphemy” convicts as terrorists may prove a motivation for the Pakistani authorities to finally apply the death sentence. Ten Pakistani Christians are currently imprisoned, under sentence of death for “blasphemy”. The total number of people on death row for “blasphemy” is not known, but in 2021 the US Commission on International Religious Freedom estimated that it was around 40.

Christians will face the consequences

The other two parts of this agreement – the speeding up of “blasphemy” trials and the creation of a Counter Blasphemy Department – apply to all those charged with any form of “blasphemy” under PPC Section 295.

Another Christian, Noman Masih, was sentenced to death in May 2023 on spurious charges of showing offensive images of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, on his phone

 

The hurrying along of “blasphemy” cases will put the accused at a disadvantage, says Sohail Habel, a Lahore-based human rights activist. The shorter timescale will adversely affect the ability of suspects and their lawyers to craft a defence (by contrast, the prosecution needs little time to develop its case, as “blasphemy” allegations are often accepted at face value, especially by the lower courts).

Though the existing lengthy process can be distressing for the accused and their families, there is an advantage, adds Habel – namely that the anger whipped up by a “blasphemy” allegation among the Muslim community has opportunity to subside. Prompter trials, however, would be likely to take place in an atmosphere of heightened emotions, creating pressure for the courts to hand down guilty verdicts more often and placing the accused and their families at greater risk of mob violence.

The danger of a Counter Blasphemy Department is that – similarly to the terrorism link – its existence creates the narrative that “blasphemy” is a dangerous problem that needs urgent action. As well as leading to further accusations, such a narrative could also lead to increased incidences of mob violence.

For Christians and other religious minorities, it is not just the legal process that creates problems. “Blasphemy” accusations are implicitly believed by many in Pakistan’s Muslim-majority population. The accused, their families, and whole communities can be targeted by extremist mobs.

While the previous government of Pakistan often sought to discourage “blasphemy” accusations and mob violence, this new agreement serves to encourage actively a harsher judicial process and the fanaticism of Islamist extremists, with Christians among those who will face the consequences.            

“Blasphemy” laws have existed since 1927, when Pakistan was part of British-ruled India, and were incorporated into Pakistan’s Penal Code at the country’s founding in 1947. The laws were strengthened under the military government of General Zia-ul-Haq (in office 1978-88), including the addition of mandatory life imprisonment for desecration of the Quran (1982) and the option of a death sentence for defiling the name of Muhammad (1986). A subsequent decision by Pakistan’s constitutional court making the death sentence for “blasphemy” against Muhammad mandatory came into effect in 1991. The laws are often used to make false accusations in order to settle personal grudges. Christians and other non-Muslims are especially vulnerable, as simply stating certain Christian beliefs can be construed as “blasphemy” and lower courts usually favour the testimony of Muslims, in accordance with sharia (Islamic law).

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