Pakistan’s blasphemy ordeal

Just the accusation of blasphemy can be punishment for both the accused and their defenders

June 07, 2019 12:15 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:39 pm IST

Barely two weeks after Pakistani Christian Asia Naureen (usually referred to as Asia Bibi), whose ordeal over false blasphemy charges attracted international attention, was allowed to leave the country, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws claimed new victims.

In Mirpurkhas

A Hindu veterinary doctor, Ramesh Kumar, was arrested in Sindh province on May 27 after a local cleric filed a police complaint accusing him of committing blasphemy. Mr. Kumar’s village Phulhadiyon, in Mirpurkhas district, has a population of about 7,000 people, the majority of whom are Hindus. As is often the case when blasphemy allegations are made in Pakistan, riots broke out in the area and an angry mob burnt down Mr. Kumar’s establishment as well as other property belonging to him and his family. The mob also tried to attack the police station and caused some damage in the process. Although six suspects were soon taken into custody for rioting and damaging the vet’s property, it is Mr. Kumar’s family that will now be living in fear while his prosecution meanders through Pakistan’s judicial system.

Ms. Bibi’s experience highlights the difficult path ahead for Mr. Kumar. Her relocation to Canada does not reflect substantive change in the persecuted state of Pakistan’s religious minorities. Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws remain in force, and there is no sign that the authorities plan to drop prosecution of hundreds of blasphemy cases.

Between 1987 and 2012, Pakistani authorities prosecuted 1,170 people for blasphemy. That number has only increased over the years. The Pakistani legal system offers little protection to someone charged with blasphemy and mere accusation is tantamount to punishment. Judges and lawyers fear religious vigilantes who violently attack anyone they deem to be supporting a blasphemer.

Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, was killed by his own bodyguard in 2011 for supporting reconsideration of blasphemy laws; the judge who convicted his murderer had to flee the country; and a shrine was built for the assassin after his execution.

Ms. Bibi’s case attracted international attention. She was an unlettered berry-picker convicted by a Pakistani court of insulting Prophet Mohammed after being framed by neighbours who objected to her, as a Christian, drinking water from the same glass as them. She was sentenced to death for her comments in response to her neighbours’ mistreatment. Support from church-goers and human rights defenders around the world meant that the U.S. government and the Pope paid attention to her case. Parallel efforts were initiated by the EU’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief to secure her release.

Last year Pakistan’s Supreme Court decided to hear her appeal after having ignored it for years. She had spent more than eight years in solitary confinement before being acquitted by the Supreme Court in October 2018. But Islamist groups took to the streets to protest that decision, and a review petition against her release was put in to block the Supreme Court’s decision. Even after the review petition was dismissed, Ms. Bibi remained under ‘protective custody’ at an unknown location. Eventually, pressure from Western governments and the Vatican, coupled with threats of EU sanctions at a time when Pakistan sought its thirteenth bailout from the International Monetary Fund in three decades, worked.

Pakistan’s all-powerful military and the civilian government installed last year are obsessed with improving Pakistan’s international image, without really changing its reality. They wanted Ms. Bibi’s flight to safety to be projected as reflecting a change in Pakistan’s treatment of its minorities. It is nothing of the sort, as the persecution of Mr. Kumar amply indicates.

Lonely struggle?

Unlike Ms. Bibi, Mr. Kumar is unlikely to have the support of Western governments and the Vatican. Any action by Hindu organisations in India or abroad on his behalf will only be misrepresented in Pakistan’s officially directed media as part of the ‘ongoing conspiracies’ against the country that are used as an excuse to maintain Pakistan’s semi-authoritarian power structure.

Ms. Bibi was eventually smuggled out of Pakistan. Those who fought for her freedom for over eight years rejoiced in a way usually reserved for a member of one’s own family. We all hope that she may know peace and happiness for her remaining life abroad. But we must not forget that, without major reform in its legal and political environment, Pakistan continues to have one of the worst track records in protecting its religious minorities.

Christians, Hindus, and Ahmadi Muslims continue to face persecution and the country’s blasphemy laws, under which Ms. Bibi was targeted, enable that repression. Blasphemy charges are filed routinely by Islamist extremists for political gain, by neighbours for revenge over a slight, and sometimes even by corrupt landlords for advantage in property disputes.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which date back to the military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq, have only encouraged the unleashing of extremist religious frenzy. According to an Amnesty International report, the mere accusation of blasphemy is tantamount to punishment. Several cases illustrate that point.

Junaid Hafeez, a visiting lecturer of English at Bahauddin Zakaria University in Multan, has been in prison for the last six years after being accused of blasphemy by Islamist student activists. He was charged because he invited a speaker to a seminar who had allegedly “penned blasphemous passages in her book”.

His lawyer dropped him as a client after being mobbed by over 200 fellow lawyers; when human rights defender Rashid Rehman took up his case, he was shot dead in his office. The killer has never been apprehended and judges do not want to hear the case, which has been transferred from one court since 2013.

For Pakistan’s religious minorities to feel safe, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws must be tackled, amended or removed as a crucial first step. After that, or alongside, must begin the decades-long process of removing the seed of hatred sowed soon after the death of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah. That would involve an effort of mammoth proportions starting with the defanging of terrorist groups, changing school curriculum, and banning hate speech in all public venues. Political and religious leaders as well as the mass media must become a partner in confronting hate. So far, it seems that they would rather benefit from spreading the poison of communal hatred than confronting it.

Farahnaz Ispahani, a former member of Pakistan’s Parliament, is author of ‘Purifying The Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities’. She is Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC and Senior Fellow of the Religious Freedom Institute

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