Editor’s NOTE: The following op-ed, penned by me, was published in The Friday Times on September 28, 2012. I’m pleased to cross-post the write-up on my blog from The Friday Times without any editing. (Ali Salman Alvi)
In July this year, an enraged mob of more than 2,000 people in the Chanighot area of Bahawalpur snatched a mentally unstable man accused of burning pages from the Holy Quran from police custody and burned him alive.
Last month, a 14-year-old Christian girl suffering from Down’s syndrome was accused of burning pages from the Noorani Qaida. As communal tensions rose, Christians began to leave the area in fear. Subsequently the investigation officer told the court that there was proof the prayer leader who incited the mob, Khalid Jadoon Chishti, had in fact tampered with the evidence and added the pages into the bag of trash that Rimsha had burned.
These incidents and many others like them indicate that a serious effort is required to prevent the misuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive issue that needs to be handled with great care.
Pakistan has a 97% Muslim population while Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and other minorities comprise the rest of the 3%. In a country where minorities are already concerned about their safety, it is not likely that a sane person would commit blasphemy on purpose. Whether and allegation is true or false can only be ascertained in a court of law, and not by mob justice.
Only seven cases of blasphemy were registered since the inception of the law in 1927 to 1986, according to the National Commission for Justice and Peace. In 1986, the Gen Ziaul Haq regime added Section 295-C to the Pakistan Penal Code, making blasphemy punishable by death. Since then, a staggering 1,058 cases have been registered. Of the accused, 456 were Ahmadis, 449 were Muslims, 132 were Christians and 21 were Hindus.
Apparently, Section 295 has become a handy legal mace to settle measly personal scores and threaten rivals for monetary gains, predominantly in small towns and rural areas. Judges in the lower courts usually come under pressure to convict the accused charged under the statute.
Over the years, attempts to amend the statute have seen rigid opposition from religious parties and invited threats of bloodshed from militant groups. Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto tried to amend the blasphemy law to make sure it was not misused to intimidate religious minorities, but she failed. Even Gen (r) Pervez Musharraf, a secular military dictator, could not amend the blasphemy laws because of imminent and severe retaliation. Major political parties are reluctant to call for amendments in the law to ensure that it is not misused, because they fear similar retaliation.
In 2010, Article 10 of the constitution was amended to introduce the clause of due process into the criminal justice system. The amendment provides that a person charged with a crime is entitled to due process. This due process clause applies to the blasphemy statute as well. Pakistani courts must not apply the blasphemy statute disregarding the due process and basic fundamental rights of life, liberty and freedom of religion protected under the constitution.
I am not proposing that Pakistan should allow blasphemy, but that blasphemy cases should be thoroughly investigated. The first and foremost priority should be to establish whether the charges filed under the blasphemy statute are genuine. Section 295-C must be used in cases of malevolent attacks on the Muslim faith and even in such cases it should not be construed and applied in a manner that negates the right to due process and to the rights given to religious minorities under Islam as per Article 227.