Editorial

Blasphemy law reform

That the ruling party — or an influential and
reasonably large segment of it — often acts as a
mirror image of the MMA was shown again on
Tuesday by the actions of the parliamentary
affairs minister who quite ruthlessly shot down a
bill moved by a minority MNA, M P Bhandara, to
amend the blasphemy laws. As Mr Bhandara put it,
he wanted to introduce the legislation to bring a
semblance of equality to the existing law. Also,
he said he wanted further safeguards for the
minorities since the laws in their current form
were widely misused. Now the question is: how
could the government see anything wrong with
this? After all, is it not President Pervez
Musharraf himself who, on several occasions, has
publicly said that there needs to be a procedural
change in the existing law so as to check its
frequent misuse? Besides, it surely must be in
the government’s knowledge — though it may not
be willing to admit it publicly — that the
minorities by and large live in fear since these
laws can be so easily used against them. This is
particularly true of Christians living in Punjab
where several cases of abuse of the laws have
been reported over the years.

The fact of the matter is that in 2004 the
government did make procedural changes to the
laws but these have rarely been implemented since
any complaint of blasphemy received by the police
immediately leads to the arrest of the accused
and registration of an FIR. Hence, many cases
tend to be borne out of a wish to settle personal
scores — by the accuser against the accused —
and have only added to the discrimination
prevalent in society against the minorities. In
many instances, the motivation for the accusation
has more to do with bigotry, selfish gain,
prejudice and professional rivalry. Often, the
unsubstantiated oral testimony of the complainant
would be used as the basis for conviction and
even if corroborating witnesses were used, they
tended to share the bias and prejudice of the
complainant.

Furthermore, the laws create an atmosphere where
fanatics and bigots, motivated primarily by hate
and intolerance, are encouraged to take the law
into their own hands. Hence, the many
unfortunate, grisly instances where persons
accused of blasphemy, with the charges against
them yet to be proven, were lynched by mobs or
murdered by vigilantes. The element of bigotry
and intolerance is so great in society — spread
by the existence of such laws from Zia’s era —
that even suspects in police custody or in jail
cannot feel safe. In fact, it was only recently
that a police guard killed a blasphemy suspect
under his guard. In such an environment, where
mere accusation is promptly equated with guilt,
it is next to impossible for someone accused of
blasphemy to receive a fair trial. The pressure
on the judge hearing such a case is often
supplemented when the complainant packs the
courtroom with like-minded individuals (many
stand outside the court as well) all of whom have
the tacit or overt backing of militant outfits.

Even the acquittal of a suspect by a court of law
usually does not pacify the bigots, which means
that even after being proved innocence, the
individual and his family must either live in
perpetual fear or flee the country (as many who
were accused of blasphemy but were eventually
proved innocent had to do). In one instance, even
a high court judge who had acquitted two
individuals accused of blasphemy ended up being
murdered by a fanatic. Never has there been any
prosecution of those who take the law into their
own hands, or against those who incite the
general public to kill a person accused of
blasphemy.

In view of all this, one has to wonder what it is
that the parliamentary affairs minister was
trying to defend on Tuesday as he vehemently
opposed Mr Bhandara’s bill, condescendingly
telling him that Pakistan was made in the name of
Islam and was not a secular state. Regardless of
that debate, any country that claims to provide
justice to its citizens regardless of faith,
creed or caste needs to consider the views of its
minorities in a fair and reasoned manner, instead
of dismissing them out of hand and at the same
time lecturing them on religion and ideology.
That will only reinforce the widely-held belief
that the government’s oft-repeated claim that
minorities in Pakistan enjoy the same legal and
constitutional rights as the majority community
is nothing but doublespeak.

P.S.

* From The News, May 10, 2007. Circulated by South Asia Citizens Wire | May 9-10, 2007 | Dispatch No. 2402 - Year 9.

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