Mandi Bahauddin & the Blasphemy Law

18 May

The Christian community in Pakistan is under attack yet again. The reason? Well, extremism, intolerance and bigotry of course but more importantly, the infamous blasphemy law that remains intact today. It is strange that a series of provisions in the Pakistan Penal Code are treated as superior to Article 8(1) of the Constitution which clearly stipulates that any law ‘inconsistent’ with the fundamental rights guaranteed in Chapter 1 of the Constitution will be void. These Chapter 1 rights include security of person, safeguards pertaining to arrest and detention, right to fair trial, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom to profess and manage religious institutions and equality of citizens before the law. These are the rights most commonly violated as a result of the use or misuse of the blasphemy law.

Like many other gifts that General Zia bestowed on this nation, the five clauses he inserted into the Pakistan Penal Code are the most dangerous of his gifts. Sections 295B, 295C, 298A, 298B and 298C suffer from inherent design flaws which inevitably result in severe misuse of the blasphemy law. By abolishing the intent requirement in Section 295C, General Zia managed to transform blasphemy into a strict liability offence. Further, the scope of liability was expanded to include ‘words, either spoken or written’, ‘visible representation’ and ‘any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly’. If it wasn’t already obvious, let it be clear that liability for such a wide scope of actions reduces the evidentiary threshold. In other words, the fact that mere insinuation is enough to commit blasphemy virtually places individuals in a ‘my word against his’ scenario.

Often we discuss the blasphemy law without truly explaining or understanding the insanity resulting from mere mention of the law. Let us not forget that when Benazir Bhutto was in the opposition, she had criticized the Shariat Court ‘for stiffening the punishment for blasphemy’. The Minister for Religious Affairs of the sitting government declares Ms. Bhutto an infidel who should be subject to the death penalty.[1] Bear in mind this was not a request by Ms. Bhutto to amend or repeal the law but merely a comment as to the severity of punishment.

Even more ludicrous still is the fact that the practice of our lower courts has resulted in the misuse of the blasphemy law receiving a stamp of approval from the lower judiciary. In the Salamat Masih case (1995), the trial court had convicted Salamat on the basis of insufficient evidence. The question as to how an illiterate boy could write, let alone write blasphemous material, was never addressed. Not that it mattered that the Lahore High Court rectified the lower courts’ disastrous mistake, especially considering that Manzoor Masih, one of the co-accused, had already been killed during the trial. Salamat was acquitted by the Lahore High Court but all did not end well – Justice Arif Bhatti, who had acquitted Salamat, was murdered in his own chambers and Salamat, his family and members of his community had to flee.

For the duration of the Salamat Masih trial, the defence attorney, Ms. Asma Jehangir, was the victim of public outrage: from the vandalism of her car to attacks on her driver as well as four attempted attacks on her amidst serious threats to her family. Not that this sort of vigilantism is ever punished – in case we had forgotten, many others have lost their lives fighting against misuse of this law, including Rashid Rehman. In fact, Rashid Rehman was threatened openly in a court of law where he was presenting his party’s case.

If it isn’t bad enough that around 1,274 people have been charged with blasphemy, as of 2010, what is even more terrifying is that the accused in these sorts of cases almost always has to either flee or remain in police custody.[2] If being kept in police custody for your own safety when you may well be innocent isn’t alarming enough, how about the fact that remaining in said custody does not guarantee the alleged blasphemer protection from violent mobs. In July 2012, a mentally unstable man was arrested for blasphemy in Punjab when a mob of over 1500 people gathered outside the police station and ‘extracted him from police custody, doused him in petrol and set him on fire at the location where he was alleged to have burnt pages of the Quran’.[3] Similarly, in December 2012, a mob in Sindh lynched a 35-year-old man after storming the police station where he was being detained.[4]

If one were to continue to narrate the grave injustices and violations of human rights that have resulted from the existence of the blasphemy law in Pakistan, one would not know when to stop. Rimsha Masih, Aasia Bibi, Mohammad Asghar,[5] Zaibunnissa,[6] Anwar Masih,[7] and so many more names that have been forgotten or blanked out of our collective conscience have still not inspired any compassion or humanity in us to actually move towards amending the law.

Now, we see the same misuse of the law in Mandi Bahauddin and we’ll scream and shout for the next few weeks but nothing substantial will come of it till Parliament has the courage to take a stand and amend the law. While one has little to no faith in the humanity or compassion of Parliamentarians in Pakistan, if for nothing else, can we not see that it could be any of us tomorrow if it is not us today?

[1] “Nearer, my God, to Theocracy.” The Economist, 5-11 September (1992), at 38

[2] “Timeline: Accused under the Blasphemy Law.” Dawn, 18 August 2013. Web, available at: http://www.dawn.com/news/750512/timeline-accused-under-the-blasphemy-law

[3] Husain, Muzaffar. “Blasphemy laws and mental illness in Pakistan.” Psychiatric Bulletin, Vol. 38, Issue 1 (2014), pp. 40-44

[4] Khushkik, Qurban Ali. “Desecration case: Lynch mob kills suspect, burns body in Dadu.” Dawn, 21 December 2012. Web, available at: http://www.dawn.com/news/773037/desecration-case-lynch-mob-kills-suspect-burns-body-in-dadu

[5] Boone, Jon. “Pakistani police officer shoots Briton convicted of blasphemy.” The Guardian, 25 September 2014. Web, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/25/pakistani-police-officer-shoots-briton-blasphemy

[6] Tanveer, Rana. “Woman freed after 14 years.” The Express Tribune, 23 July 2010. Web, available at: http://tribune.com.pk/story/30207/woman-freed-after-14-years/

[7] Amnesty International, Use and Abuse of the Blasphemy Laws, 1 July 1994, ASA/33/08/94, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a9aa4.html

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2 Responses to “Mandi Bahauddin & the Blasphemy Law”

  1. Ishfaq jaan May 18, 2016 at 6:46 am #

    Good pice of work . Keep it up:)
    Though, I disagree at your point that ” parliament needs to amend the law” . As i understand, it will be disasterious move for pak at this point to touch it and amend because the roots are very stronger.
    we need to change the mind of the people nd their thinking.The law has been interpreted by those who used it for their personal gain . However, i personally feel that we need to address this issue very carefully because the people have taken it so serious that even dont want to discuss. We must endorse policy as;
    1) to educate people
    2) lessons of tolerance nd patience from primary to higher education nd in madressha’s .
    3) punishment for those who falsely file a case against any innocent
    4) seek religious leader, teachers, politicians and media persons assitance to focus on tolerance and respect for all.
    5) sharia Court can play its role to advise govt to amend the law and it would help govt to adhering the order of sharia Court.

  2. Hamza Nadeem May 18, 2016 at 7:43 am #

    LOL, fantastic to see a lawyer’s writing. Rarely do we see articles providing citations, thank you for providing us with the relevant sources. I would have enjoyed your article even more, had there been a more rigorous analysis of the constitutional clause and how it cuts through the relevant law. Perhaps you could look into the legislative history of the blasphemy law, to ascertain the scope of the provisions. Quite often the express intent of legislators cannot be expressed by the law itself. Laws are written and susceptible to flaws and ambiguities.
    I do agree that the use of the term “insinuate” in the statute renders it to vagueness. Here in the United States vague laws are generally held to be unconstitutional (Chicago v. Morales) (Sorry, the leave a reply section does not allow for the use of italics). To me the blasphemy law seems to ascribe or prohibit behaviors that go on beyond the scope of necessity. The law, to the detriment of Pakistanis, brings far too many acts or behaviors within its scope.
    I’m pretty sure most people have engaged in a blasphemous act (willful or mistakenly) during some instance of their lives. Thus playing a substantial role in every Pakistanis life. I’m quite certain most of the minorities in the region do not even know of the law until recent events brought the issue to life. Unfortunately, common law does not excuse ignorance of the law, however “intent” could serve as a safeguard for potential abuse. Often evidence of blasphemy that is written can allow for a reasonable inference of “intent” making any conviction beyond a reasonable doubt. However, spoken words, said in the heat of an argument or influenced by other events in a persons life should be allowed an exception or a greater burden of proof. It is difficult to meet the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” with mere words, because witnesses can lie and biases may could the judgment of those adjudicating the matter.
    I cannot comment on Pakistan’s constitution, I haven’t read it. The United States constitution is brief and to the point. Our constitutional analysis requires making use of structuralism, substance, and history. My first encounter with Constitutional law, while I pursued my Juris Doctor at Georgetown, was by far an eye opener. Although a challenge, the memoranda and cases read were often brilliant and often led to a progression in intellect of the students. The privilege of being educated from one of the elite legal institutions in the nation, I have learned from famous Constitutional scholars. Do let me know if I can help in your analysis in way, perhaps by requesting a professor to look at something of interest.

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