Despatch from Lahore | International

In the name of God

The daughters of Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi pose with an image of their mother while standing outside their residence in Sheikhupura located in Pakistan's Punjab Province November 13, 2010.

The daughters of Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi pose with an image of their mother while standing outside their residence in Sheikhupura located in Pakistan's Punjab Province November 13, 2010.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

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At least 1,472 people were charged under the blasphemy law in Pakistan since 1987.

Last month, the Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted Wajih-ul-Hassan of blasphemy charges. Mr. Hassan was accused of writing “blasphemous” letters to a lawyer and was sentenced to death in 2002 by a Lahore court. And he had been in jail since. The Supreme Court said that there was no concrete evidence against him.

The case has revived calls for amendments to Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws. “There is no legal or ethical justification for the blasphemy law not to be amended and ultimately repealed,” Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told The Hindu. “Recent cases have once again spotlighted that often the accusation is a punishment in itself. Prime Minister Imran Khan has repeatedly expressed the intention to make an inclusive and equitable Pakistan. It will not be possible as long as the blasphemy laws remain on the books.”

According to the laws, anyone convicted of insulting Prophet Mohammad can be sentenced to death, and anyone guilty of insulting “any religion” can be jailed for up to 10 years.

The Supreme Court has noted, on many occasions, that people accused of blasphemy suffer “beyond proportion or repair” in the absence of adequate safeguards against misapplication or misuse of such laws, said Reema Omer, legal adviser, South Asia International Commission of Jurists. “In more than 80% blasphemy cases, those convicted by trial courts are acquitted on appeal. In most cases, the reason for acquittal is that the case was registered maliciously for personal/political disputes,” she said. “Yet, not a single person has been prosecuted for instituting malicious cases or giving false testimony... Actors in the criminal justice system, who not only allow but are complicit in such manifest injustices, have also not been held accountable.”

According to London-based Centre for Social Justice, at least 1,472 people were charged under the law between 1987 and 2016. Last year, Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who was on death row for blasphemy, was acquitted by the Supreme Court. The acquittal had triggered mass protests in Islamabad.

Impartiality in question

Rights groups say minority sections are often targeted by the law. According to Ms. Omer, the Lahore High Court judgment confirming Mr. Hassan’s conviction and death sentence “is rife with anti-Ahmadi sentiment and shows how influenced the judges were by the complainant, Ismail Qureshi, who is praised in the judgment for his role in the mandatory death penalty for blasphemy against the Holy Prophet. Can such judges really be called ‘impartial’?”

No-one has been legally executed in Pakistan for blasphemy. But there have been several violent incidents in the name of blasphemy. In 2013, Junaid Hafeez, an academic, was booked and arrested on blasphemy charges. His lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was threatened after he took Mr. Hafeez’s case and eventually assassinated in Multan. Mr. Hafeez is still in prison.

According to lawyer Asad Jamal, judges of lower courts are considerate in some cases. In a case similar to Aasia Bibi’s [in picture], a trial court acquitted another Christian woman, Rubina Bibi, of blasphemy charges. “If judges of lower courts are assured that the State will provide security, that the High Courts will back them up, then they would be able to give more relief.”

High Court judges, on the other hand, are often reluctant to take bold decisions, he said. “In September 2014, I petitioned the Lahore High Court that Junaid Hafeez’s case should be transferred from Multan to Lahore after Rashid Rehman’s assassination. The court asked why it was necessary. When I mentioned Rehman’s assassination, the then Chief Justice of Lahore High Court said, ‘One is not required to obtain visa to travel to Lahore from Multan’, implying that an assassin could travel to Lahore if he wanted to; therefore, there was no use of transferring the case,” said Mr. Jamal.

Aasia Bibi’s case appears to have set a precedent of resolving cases related to blasphemy. “Now with Wajih Hassan’s case, lawyers may be more confident of a positive outcome,” said academic Umair Javed.

“The unfortunate thing, though, is about the time lapsed due to injustice. This is a larger systematic problem with our justice system. Over the years, blasphemy has become such a volatile and emotional issue that it now has its own political dynamics.” There’s now at least a chance to get justice, “but whether this is a turning point in the blasphemy issue in Pakistan overall remains to be seen,” said Mr. Javed.

(Mehmal Sarfraz is a journalist based in Lahore)

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A wrong photograph that accompanied this article has been removed. The error is regretted.

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Printable version | Dec 13, 2019 7:07:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/in-the-name-of-god/article29605655.ece

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