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Pakistan urged to stop blasphemy law’s ‘massive human-rights violations’

21 September 2012

PAKISTAN is being urged to set up a commission to investigate the "tragic consequences" of its blasphemy law and "suggest a way out of this difficult and embarrassing situation". The call came in a communiqué issued on 19 September by the World Council of Churches after a series of public hearings in Geneva.

The laws date from 1860, when Pakistan was part of British-ruled India, and originally protected all faiths. They were amended in 1986 as part of an Islamification campaign by the then military ruler of Pakistan, General Zia-ul-Haq, and are now being used as "a tool to settle personal scores through attacks on religious minorities", the communiqué says, and have "fostered a climate of religiously motivated violence and persecution in several parts of the country".

The law says that the death penalty can be imposed on anybody who "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". And anybody who defiles the Qur'an can be imprisoned for life.

The Pakistan newspaper Dawn said on Thursday that 15 people were charged with blasphemy prior to the change in the law; and 1274 have faced charges between 1986 and 2010.

A current case involves a teenage girl, Rimsha Masih, who faces the death penalty after being accused of burning pages of the Qur'an (News, 7, 14 September).

She had been held in a high-security prison since her arrest on 16 August, until being granted bail on a 500,000 Pakistan rupee (£3270) surety on 7 September. Rimsha and her family are currently in hiding. Other Christians from their village near Mehrabadi, Islamabad, are reported to have fled the area to avoid vigilante-style mobs.

On Monday, lawyers for the accuser, Hammad Malik, asked the court to revoke bail after police asked for more time to prepare their case. A senior civil judge, Amir Aziz, reserved judgment until 21 September, when the hearing resumes.

On 1 September, an imam from Rimsha's village, Mohammed Khalid Chishti, who has campaigned for Christians to be moved from the area, was arrested and accused of planting evidence in the case (News, 7, 14 September).

The week's public hearings, which coincided with the 21st Session of the UN Human Rights Council, brought together Christians, Muslims, and Hindus, including the Bishop of Raiwind and the Moderator of the Church of Pakistan, the Most Revd Samuel Azariah; and the secretary of the Federal Board of Wafaqul Madares (Islamic Schools), Moulana Qari Hanif Jalandhari.

In their communiqué, the participants say: "We believe that the role of religion is to create a climate of peace, stability, tolerance, reconciliation, and respect for human dignity and the human rights of all people, and not to promote conditions that create intolerance and hatred."

They say that they heard "examples of the alarming trend of misuse of the Blasphemy Law and its impacts. Article 20 of the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees freedom of religion as a fundamental right, stating that 'every citizen shall have the right to profess, practise, and propagate his religion', and Article 36 stipulates the protection of minorities in that 'the State shall safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities'.

"However, these constitutional guarantees are being negated. Pakistan society has been experiencing militarization and politicization of religion, which has led to abuse of religion for political gains, which in turn results in violations of fundamental human rights of minority religions in Pakistan.

"Religious minorities in the country have been living in a state of fear and terror as the Blasphemy Law has been used to register false cases against religious minorities. The increasing trend of the misuse of the Blasphemy Law intensifies communal hatred, religious intolerance, and persecution against religious minorities."

They describe the blasphemy law as "vaguely formulated and arbitrarily enforced", and say that it has "become one of the most stringent laws in the country".

They continue: "There are also serious flaws in the presumptions, intent, and the content of the Blasphemy Law. Since the mandatory death sentence was introduced, many innocent people have lost their lives.

"The common experience of abusing and misusing the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan has led to physical violence, damage, destruction of properties, and loss of life among innocent people over the years. In recent times, the number of victims has been increasing.

"Many victims of the Blasphemy Law have faced displacement or been forced to live in hiding. Charges brought against individuals under the Blasphemy Law were malicious, stemming from personal enmity, often with the motivation to have people imprisoned to gain advantage in business or land disputes."

They call on the government of Pakistan to "take realistic and solid steps" to stop abuse of the blasphemy laws, and say that "tinkering with procedural amendments" has "failed to mitigate extremely sad consequences of a law that is inherently susceptible to abuse".

The chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, Wilson Chowdhry, said that the current blasphemy laws were "a recipe for injustice, corruption, and repression", and that "just the threat of a blasphemy accusation is a potent weapon".

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