State silence on abuse of blasphemy laws<br>By Robin Fernandez


Marginalized communities are often disappointed by the inadequate legislative protection given to them by governments. Their lobbying attempts to enlarge the Legal umbrella that barely covers their heads are doomed from the start. The state is willin

Perhaps in no place is that More apparent than in Pakistan where the majority of Muslims do recognize the need to protect Christians and other religious minorities from discriminatory Laws. But the government is paralyzed by fear of what it has identified as far-right extremists. A small illustration of their grip on the power levers came in May 2000 when no less a person than General Pervez Musharraf announced the withdrawal of a proposed amendment to the blasphemy law?
Musharraf had earlier Offered to revise clause 295-C of the penal code. The Christians, as a matter of principle, are not opposed to the original 1860 penal code clauses of 295 and 298, both of which are intended to prevent religiously motivated violence and hate crimes. Nor do they dispute the efficacy of the 1927 amendment to clause 295 incorporated as 295-A which reads:
"Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations insults the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished With imprisonment...for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both." Their grouse lies mainly with the legal insertions made by the late military ruler Ziaul Haq in the 1980s. These amendments, introduced as 298-A, 295-B and 295-C, for one, do not mention malicious intent to rake up religious sensitivities as a condition for an action amounting to criminal offence. They also prescribe stiffer penalties for blasphemy and focus almost exclusively on the religious sentiments of Muslims, instead of "any class of people".

In 1990 the Federal Shariat Court upheld the punishment recommended for blasphemy under clause 295-C. It ruled that the only punishment available for anyone Convicted of blasphemy was death. Christians have argued, in vain, on two counts. They say that no member of their community would ever willfully insult or defile the name of Prophet Muhammad or any of his companions. Nor would they ever malign Islam or rebuke adherents of the Muslim faith. Their community leaders say they merely want the government to prevent people from lodging false blasphemy cases= against non-Muslims.

Lawyers say the country's blasphemy laws have all too often been invoked for the purpose of grabbing prized land, settling personal scores and eliminating competition for lucrative posts. The human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, lists yet another cause: "Charges against Ahmadis and Christians appear to have been brought solely because of their membership in these minority groups." While this is undeniable in several cases, one must differentiate between the obscurantist and the moderates and the literate and the uneducated--a distinction that was first made by senior administration officials following last September's terror attacks on the United States.

The intolerance, for which the Muslims of Pakistan have been blamed for, stems from a fringe fundamentalist element. So the state or government, Instead of its powerless masses, is obliged to tame the obscurantist and take concrete measures to protect religious minorities. Apart from throwing into prison dozens of people, the controversial amendments in the penal code have Claimed an important life. Bishop John Joseph, the first native Punjabi bishop, committed suicide in May 1998 to protest against the death penalty awarded to a Christian youth for blasphemy.

One of the noticeable trends emerging from the misuse of blasphemy laws is the fact that the average victim--in the case of Christians especially-is disadvantaged, barely literate and resident of a rural town in Punjab or Sindh. This is again proof that discriminatory laws are far more menacing to the poor. Thus it falls upon the government to create legal Structures to protect the poor and the defenseless. Human-rights activists believe the charge of blasphemy ought to be thoroughly examined before criminal prosecution can get underway. In most of the cases documented by human rights organizations the complainant himself is the sole witness to the act of blasphemy that could include desecration of the Qur'aan and insulting or defiling the name of the prophet. The verbal testimony thereof is rarely Corroborated by other sources. By the time court proceedings are instituted, however, more witnesses mysteriously step forward.

It is not uncommon for the judge hearing the case or the defense lawyer to receive death threats. Often angry mobs of people are seen assembled outsides Courthouses hearing blasphemy cases, as if to reinforce the message that they would not accept anything less than a conviction. Other intimidator tactics usually follow. Against this background, a court in Sahiwal sentenced 30-year-old Ayub Masih to death two years ago. The deceased bishop of Faisalabad, Bishop John Joseph, fought off the blasphemy allegation against Ayub.

The charge was in fact motivated by a dispute over land allotment for Christian families. Once the blasphemy charges were filed against Ayub several Christian families that hoped to win land under a government programmed for Landless peasants were beaten and forcibly evicted. Ayub is still in prison since the appeals filed against his sentencing are pending. Beyond mere appeasement of religious minorities is the possible measure of widening the scope of the blasphemy law, making it a punishable offence to malign religious personages of all other faiths. That is likely to heal many of the long festering wounds of the minorities, and ensure that their religious sentiments are accorded the respect they deserve.

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