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Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws

Last year the governor of the Punjab, Salman Taseer, was shot dead for merely suggesting the blasphemy laws should be changed.
Rimsha Masih

Rimsha Masih
Photo Credit: AsiaNews.it

The ordeal of Rimsha Masih, a Pakistani Christian arrested on charges of blasphemy, is far from over. In Pakistan, an allegation of blasphemy can be enough to result in the accused being killed even in the absence of a trial or evidence.

Masih, age fourteen, was charged under Pakistan’s notoriously draconian blasphemy laws, with burning a copy of the Quran, and held for three weeks in Rawalpindi prison.

There are serious flaws in the case against Masih. Not only is she a minor, but there are also reports that she has learning difficulties and is not of full mental capacity. To complicate the matter further, a local imam has also been arrested on claims that over he framed the girl after an ongoing dispute with her family.

Despite this, blasphemy allegations continue to elicit such passions in Pakistan that authorities could not risk sending Masih home; and a number of her neighbours, fearing reprisals after mosques disclosed her address, have fled their village.

Blasphemy is such a contentious issue that despite being released on bail, Masih had to be taken by an armoured vehicle to a military helicopter and then transported to an undisclosed location where she is currently in hiding. Police fear that if Masih is allowed to return to her village, a vigilante mob would attack her.

These fears are not unfounded. A lawyer for the prosecution warned that if Masih were not convicted, such a scenario was likely. Last year the governor of the Punjab, Salman Taseer, was shot dead for merely suggesting the blasphemy laws should be changed. Weeks after Taseer’s assassination Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic who was Pakistan’s only Christian member of the Cabinet, and who opposed the blasphemy laws, was also killed.

Far from causing revulsion, these assassinations were largely welcomed by militant groups and their supporters. Taseer’s assassin was lauded not just by radicals, but by those who would be expected to oppose mob “justice”: lawyers. Instead of being outraged, the young lawyers association of the Punjab offered to defend Taseer’s killer pro bono.

Minorities, being subject to almost half of all prosecutions under the law despite comprising about only 3% of the overall population, have particularly suffered under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which is drafted in broad terms and states:

Article 295

B – Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an or an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.

C – Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.

Politicians who want to challenge the law are routinely killed or intimidated, making the government keen to pursue – rather than curtail – blasphemy laws.

In 2009, in an effort an that is still current, Pakistan sponsored UN Res. 1618, to persuade the United Nation to adopt a law that initially would internationally criminalize questioning or discussing Islam, but was then changed to state “religions.” The U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, broke years of silence on the topic to sponsor an official three-day, closed-door meeting on the Resolution in Washington D.C. just last December.

Pakistan, has also started monitoring internet and text communications in Pakistan, to ensure that people are not sending, searching, or looking up material that could be considered insulting to Islam.

This is the impasse: No one in Pakistan is willing to challenge the blasphemy laws. Those who do are assassinated. Mob justice is rampant in such cases, with the issues becoming highly charged and little attention being paid to the facts. The implications for those accused of such crimes are devastating.

Masih has no future in Pakistan. To ensure she can live her life, the British Pakistani Christian Association is currently lobbying the British government to grant her asylum so she can escape the strictures of religious fanaticism in the country.

In Pakistan, the mere allegation of blasphemy imposes the life sentence of a death sentence.

Originally published by the Gatestone Institute.

About the Author: Shiraz Maher holds a degree in History from the University of Leeds and an MPhil in Historical Studies from Cambridge University. After leaving university, he worked as a journalist, reporting on terrorism, radicalization and the Middle East. His writings have appeared in the Times, Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Guardian, New Statesman, Prospect, Wall Street Journal and Standpoint.


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