Human rights campaigners have welcomed the European Parliament’s call for the review and amendment of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws.
The EU resolution states that they are “often used to justify censorship, criminalisation, persecution and… the murder of members of political, racial and religious minorities.” The national director of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), Stuart Windsor, says “We believe that nothing less than full repeal of the blasphemy laws will end their misuse, but the European Parliament’s call for review and amendment is an important first step in this direction.”
While showing support for Pakistan’s efforts to improve the situation for religious minorities, the resolution also calls upon the Council of the European Union – Pakistan’s most important trading partner – to “include the issue of religious tolerance in society in its counter-terrorism dialogue with Pakistan.” It states that this is “of central importance to the long-term fight against religious extremism.”
Stuart Windsor says, “The current government of Pakistan has taken some concrete steps to protect religious minorities, but religious intolerance has extremely deep roots and much remains to be done. This resolution strikes an effective balance between recognising progress, and making necessary calls for further action. We welcome the fact that the resolution recognises the need to place freedom of religion at the heart of EU dialogue with Pakistan, including in the context of counter-terrorism discussions.”
The former Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, has led calls for a repeal of the blasphemy laws.
Dr Nazir-Ali, who has received threats that he would not “live long” if he continued to criticise Islam, said: “The law is sometimes used for a personal agenda that has nothing to do with blasphemy, for example an interest in a neighbour’s property.
I have always said this was a bad law. Muslims who take their tradition seriously say that when the Prophet of Islam was insulted he forgave those who insulted them, so how can there be a law like this in his name?”
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been controversial since their inception. A CSW spokesman told Pukaar News: “We know at least 33 people have been killed and 966 have been accused under these laws. Those accused are mostly Muslims but the deaths are mostly of religious minorities.
These laws have been abused consistently since 1980 and the potential for misuse is worrying. The act of accusing someone is now an excuse to attack business rivals and conduct vendettas.
It’s very dangerous that there are so many false accusations and that there is little need for real evidence. There’s a big loophole in the law which allows this and it must be removed. We are supporting Pakistani civil societies who want a full repeal of the laws.”
General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, as president, added new laws to the penal code, including 295-B in 1982, which made desecrating the Koran or making a derogatory remark about it punishable by life imprisonment, though judges sometimes reduce the term. For instance, in 2000 Naseem Ghani and Mohammed Shafiq were sentenced to seven years for allegedly burning a Koran.
In 1984 came the 295-C clause, which stipulates that “derogatory remarks etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet . . . either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly . . . shall be punished with death,or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to a fine.” Six years later the stakes were raised when the Federal Sharia Court ruled that “The penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet . . . is death and nothing else.”
The Pakistani government says it does not have exact figures for the number of people charged under its blasphemy laws. They are frequently used in land disputes and cases of political rivalry: a powerful way to challenge anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim. Bail is usually denied for those charged with blasphemy, trials can last for years and lynch mobs have killed several of the accused.
Members of the Ahmadi sect (who consider themselves Muslims) and Christians are frequent targets. The Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims and denied the right to build mosques by Prime Minister Bhutto in 1974 and ten years later they were denied the right to practise their faith. Since 2000 an estimated 400 Ahmadis have been formally charged in criminal cases, including blasphemy. Several have been convicted and face life imprisonment or death sentences pending appeal. Under the blasphemy laws, virtually any public act of worship or devotion by an Ahmadi can be treated as a criminal offence.
On 28 January 2009 the police in Punjab arrested a labourer and four students for blasphemy, all Ahmadi. They were accused of writing “Prophet Mohammed” on the wall of a toilet in a Sunni mosque. The senior superintendent of police investigated and reported to the Ministry of the Interior at the end of March 2009 that the accusation was baseless.
In July and August 2009 Muslim mobs torched Christian homes and churches and killed Christians in the Punjabi city of Gojra and the nearby village of Korian. Eight Christians were burnt alive and a further 20 attacked. The reason given for the violence was that a Christian had defiled a Koran. The attacks were condemned by religious leaders including Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.
The CSW is concerned that a Pakistani Christian from Lahore was sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly blasphemy by mobile phone. Qamar David has been in prison awaiting a verdict since 2006 after being refused bail. During that time both David and his lawyer, Parvez Choudhry, were subject to assassination attempts and threats of violence.
The evidence against him is said to be based on hearsay. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source close to David says the final judgement is “biased and prejudiced” and that external pressure on the court may have distorted the outcome.
CSW’s National Director Stuart Windsor says: “This alarming verdict is yet further illustration of the urgent need for the government of Pakistan to repeal its blasphemy laws. The legislation continues to be abused for the satisfaction of personal vendettas against Pakistanis of all faiths. It is a dangerous tool in the hands of those seeking to persecute or discriminate against religious minorities.”
Canon Yaqub Masih, secretary general of the UK Asian Christian Fellowship, told Pukaar News: “The laws are a target for any animosity and should be repealed. Fundamentalists take the law into their own hands and tragedy is the result.
“A lot of moderate Muslims say action must be taken. Let us hope and pray something positive comes out of the EU’s action. Governments putting on pressure is the way to bring about change.”
In the second bilateral summit held in Brussels on June 4 the European Union and Pakistan agreed to a five-year cooperation plan, reasserting their determination to promote human rights and strengthen Pakistan’s democratic institutions.
The summit, attended by Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raz Guilani, President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, agreed to strengthen cooperation on security, trade and development.
At a press conference following the meeting President Van Rompuy expressed the EU’s appreciation and support for Pakistan’s efforts in combating terrorism and extremism and recognised the sacrifices being made by the population and the security forces for the sake of peace and stability in the region.
Manzoor Moghal, Chairman of the UK Muslim Forum, stresses that Islam emphasises peace and compassion. He says, “The blasphemy laws clearly need to be reformed because they put power in the hands of the wrong people.”
On 11 August, 1947 Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, said: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state….”