Pakistan's blasphemy laws used to persecute minority faiths, says report

(Photo: Courtesy Gatestone Institute)Shama Bibi (left) and Shahzad Masih, a Christian couple and parents of three children, were burned to death by a Muslim lynch mob in Pakistan because of a blasphemy accusation.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws can land any person accused of insulting Islam with a death sentence and the legislation has been seen as a weapon to persecute people from minority faiths, unfairly targeting them.

"The majority of blasphemy cases are based on false accusations stemming from property issues or other personal or family vendettas, rather than genuine instances of blasphemy, and they inevitably lead to mob violence against the entire community," says the report.

The finding is not that of Amnesty International which has produced a new report on Pakistan's blasphemy laws, but that of a Supreme Court judgment in the case of Malik Muhammad Mumtaz Qadri v the State, on Oct. 7, 2015.

Amnesty in December published "As Good as Dead," a 68-page report on the impact of Pakistan's laws against blasphemy.

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Amnesty's says the report details how the blasphemy laws violate human rights, "both in their substance and their application", whether this is violations of human rights by the State, or abuses of the laws by non-state actors.

It says "The laws do not meet human rights standards and lack essential safeguards to minimize the risk of additional violations and abuses."

The report notes that is difficult to establish precisely the number of blasphemy cases as there is limited available data.

However, data provided by human rights groups the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) shows a large increase of cases since the 1980s.

For example, according to NCJP, a total of 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadis, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus have been accused under various provisions on offences related to religion since 1987.

The offences relating to religion were first codified by India's British rulers in 1860, and were expanded in 1927. Pakistan inherited these laws in 1947 when it came into existence after the partition of India.

Between 1980 and 1986, more clauses were added to the laws by the military government of General Zia-ul Haq. He wanted to "Islamicize" them.

He also wanted to legally separate the Ahmadi community, declared non-Muslim in 1973, from the main body of Pakistan's overwhelmingly Muslim population.

During the general's rule, Pakistan's Federal Shariat Court was established in 1980, to "examine and decide the question whether or not any law or provision of law is repugnant to the injunctions of Islam." 

Pakistan has a population of around 202 million people of who more than 96 percent are Muslims. The overwhelming majority (more than 85 percent) of Muslims are and 10-15 percent are Shias. Other religious groups such as Christians and Hindus account for about 3.6 percent of the population.

The Amnestry reports says Pakistan's blasphemy laws violate the rights to life; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief; and freedom of opinion and expression.

"While they purport to protect religious sentiments - mainly those of the Muslim majority - prosecutors, defence lawyers and human rights activists interviewed for this report expressed concerns over the use of the laws by individuals apparently for other motives," says Amnesty.

Motives vary, but can include professional rivalry, personal or religious disputes, hostility towards religious minorities, and seeking economic gains such as money and land.

"These ulterior motives have been acknowledged by some courts in their judgments acquitting those accused of blasphemy or when quashing the charges levelled against them.

"Amnesty International's investigation found that allegations arose from supposedly blasphemous verbal exchanges, text messages, content on social and mass media, distribution of religious pamphlets or books, and "desecration" of pages or books containing religious text."

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