Blasphemy law amendment

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE uproar following Aasiya Bibi`s death sentence for alleged blasphemy has a familiar ring to it. If the past is anything to go by, we can be assured that Aasiya Bibi will not go to the gallows.

For every time a case of an alleged blasphemer sentenced to death has come into the limelight, there has been a hue and cry from the enlightened section of Pakistani society as well as human rights activists abroad, and the ruler of the day has had to give a reprieve to the condemned.

What next? Here is the example of Mohammad Younus Sheikh, a doctor/teacher in Rawalpindi, who was hauled up in 2000 under the infamous Section 295-C, found guilty and sentenced to death. Dr Sheikh won the support of some media persons and diplomats. His appeal led to a retrial that resulted in his acquittal. Dawn

Ardeshir Cowasjee and I wrote in support of Dr Sheikh in . After he had left Pakistan this erstwhile death row prisoner wrote me a letter of thanks.

I quote verbatim from his communication to convey the emotions of a person who had faced the hangman`s noose for “false and fabricated charges”: “The retrial was held in November [2003]. This time in view of the threats my lawyers had received, I decided to conduct my own defence. I was acquitted on Nov 20 and released in great secrecy on the 21st. Following my release I spent several weeks visiting family and friends, but during this time I received indirectly a number of threats to my life, and in the second week of January I heard that my accusers had appealed against my acquittal. I realised that for my safety I had to leave my country.”

He continued, “Happy though I am to be free, I cannot forget that as long as the blasphemy laws are on the statute books, they will continue to be misused. At this very moment [January 2004] there are at least 100 innocent people, victims of these black laws, languishing in various jails and lock-ups in Pakistan awaiting an uncertain future.

“It is a sad reflection on the state of society in Pakistan that even when individuals are exonerated, their lives may still be threatened by the fundamentalists and many will be forced to flee Pakistan. The state seems unable to provide us protection. I was not at all eager to leave my country and would willingly have stayed with my family and friends.”

That should give us an idea of the fate that awaits Aasiya Bibi. This is how it has been since the 1980s when Gen Ziaul Haq changed the laws in vogue since colonial times to introduce a draconian provision (Section 295-C) that prescribes the death penalty for making derogatory remarks against the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Isn`t it strange that a law that is supposedly designed to deter blasphemy has actually led to a rise in the number of cases reported?

Between 1927 and 1986 (the year the amendment to the Pakistan Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code became effective) 10 cases of blasphemy were reported. In 1988-2005, 647 people were charged for offences under this law and half of them were non-Muslims. More than 20 were murdered while they were under trial. A judge who acquitted an alleged blasphemer was also killed.

It requires no profound wisdom to see that the law is being abused to settle personal scores, tyrannise over the minorities and for economic gains. The laws have become a weapon for the fundamentalists to inflict fear on a society that has been becoming increasing intolerant. If people like Dr Sheikh have been saved it is because activists raised a hue and cry. But this speaks of a fire-fighting approach — the blasphemy law remains intact.

All kudos to Sherry Rehman, the PPP MNA, for taking the bold step of introducing a bill in the National Assembly recently that seeks to amend the blasphemy law. Ideally this law should have been done away with altogether. Sherry Rehman also admits that. But she says “there is no appetite for repeal”. Hence she has moved an amendment to take the bite out of the law. That is the approach she adopted for the Hudood laws — and succeeded.

As a tenacious fighter for human rights causes Sherry Rehman has sound credentials, and she must be supported. After all who would understand the mindset of her fellow parliamentarians better? Explaining the amended law, Sherry Rehman says that the blasphemy amendment bill requires the accuser to establish the “malicious intent” of the accused.

Since the death penalty has been removed and sentences reduced in the law, the incentive to use the law for other advantages has also been removed.

To deter false accusers with mala fide intent a clause has been added that penalises strongly all false accusations and there is a provision that all blasphemy cases will be moved to the high courts where higher public scrutiny is possible and miscarriages of justice less likely.

Dr Sheikh, who now lives abroad and campaigns for the repeal of the laws, wrote to me on “behalf of the victims of blasphemy laws” to say they “welcome” the proposed amendments. He suggests some additions which the mover of the bill could consider to further strengthen it.

First, compensation should be paid for the expenses incurred, the time spent in prisons which could have been used for socio-economic activity, for the life of a person killed or injured while in prison or on bail, or after being acquitted by the courts. Secondly, a criminal case against false accusers and false witnesses should be instituted automatically. Thirdly, the proposed amendments should apply to all the cases registered with the police since the introduction of the blasphemy laws. n

Dr Sheikh has a valid point. It is time for the Assembly to begin a serious debate on the blasphemy laws now that Sherry Rehman has taken the plunge.