Thursday, September 13, 2012

PAKISTAN: Thoughts on blasphemous law

[01] In 2006, Pakistan introduced special laws dealing with blasphemy. These are enshrined in Part XV of the Pakistan Penal Code. [02] Section 295 B states as follows:

Defiling, etc., of Holy Qur'an: Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur'an or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life. The use of the word "willingly" seems to suggest that the act was not the result of force or coercion. The sentence of life imprisonment appears to be mandatory.

[03] Section 295 C states as follows:

Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet: Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.

This is very broad in scope, and the wording seems somewhat vague. Also, there doesn't appear to be any consideration of criminal intention. Further, the only options for punishment are death or life imprisonment, with or without a fine. [04] Section 295C was used to prosecute an illiterate Christian woman from Punjab named Asia Bibi. A Pakistani jurist neatly summarises that story as follows:

In June 2009 in the District Nankana in Punjab, Pakistan, Asia Bibi, a mother of five and farm hand, was asked to fetch water. She complied, but some of her fellow Muslim workers refused to drink the water as she - being a Christian - was considered "unclean." Apparently arguments ensued resulting in some coworkers complaining to a cleric that Bibi made derogatory comments about Prophet Muhammad. A mob came to her house, beating her and members of her family before she was rescued by the police. However, the police initiated an investigation about her remarks resulting in her arrest and prosecution under Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code. She spent more than a year in jail. In November 2010, she was sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence is yet to be carried out, and Bibi is filing an appeal.

[05] The same jurist mentions one judicial interpretation of the provision:

In October 1990, the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) ruled that "the penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet ... is death and nothing else" and directed the Government of Pakistan to effect the necessary legal changes.

He then discusses how this and other blasphemy laws have been implemented:

While several individuals have been sentenced to death for blasphemy, no one has yet been executed for the crime. A significant number, however, have been murdered after the accusation or during imprisonment after the conviction. On August 1, 2009 forty houses and a Church were set ablaze by a mob in the town of Gojra, Punjab. Nine Christians were burnt alive. The attacks were triggered by reports of desecration of the Qur'an. The local police had already registered a case under section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code against three Christians for blasphemy. Hence a conviction or even an accusation under a blasphemy law provision is often a death sentence in itself.

[06] The latest case, involving a 10 year old Rimsha Masih, is also the first where the accused has been granted bail in a blasphemy case. According to one report:

A Christian girl accused of burning pages of the Quran became yesterday the first person in Pakistan to be granted bail in a blasphemy case. Judge Muhammad Azam Khan ordered that Rimsha Masih could be released once her lawyers submitted a guarantee that the family would deposit surety bonds to the value of one million rupees.

In a bizarre twist, Masih's main accuser has now been arrested for doctoring evidence.

Police last week arrested Khalid Jadoon, the imam of the local mosque who accused Rimsha of burning pages of the Quran. Two of Mr Jadoon's followers, Mohammad Zubair and Khurram Shehzad, accused him of framing the child by stashing pages of Quran in her bag to show that she had burnt them. Police alleged that Mr Jadoon had done so because he wanted to drive Christians out of the neighbourhood and the imam could yet face blasphemy charges.

[07] Laws inspired allegedly by the word of the Divine have become an excuse for sectarian mob violence. The BBC reports on what Rimsha's family suffered in the time leading upto her arrest.

Rimsha's parents, who are not being named for their own safety, told the BBC's Orla Guerin that their daughter was a shy 11-year-old who was illiterate - like the rest of the family - and had always been slow. They said she was sitting quietly at home in their poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Islamabad when a crowd gathered outside, claiming she had burnt pages from an Islamic textbook. Her mother described trying to hold off the mob. "A woman hit me," she said, "and slapped my face. People started running into the house to catch my daughter. I was scared they might kill us. We were all crying. My daughter was very upset." The family said Rimsha survived by locking herself in the bathroom. Her 14-year-old sister, who was locked in the house with her, was also traumatised by the events. "A lot of people had gathered," Rimsha's sister said, "and they were saying: 'We will cut off the hands of the people who burned the Koran.' Rimsha wouldn't come out of the bathroom. Later the police came and took her away." The entire family was at risk, according to Rimsha's father - a slight man with a hunted look, who used to earn his living as a house painter. He told our correspondent that their Muslim neighbours had threatened to set them alight. "They were saying: 'We are going to burn you inside the house,'" he said. "'We are not going to spare you or your kids. Then we will burn the homes of the other Christians.' "Even after we left the area they were saying: 'Bring the girl and the family to us. We want to kill them.'"

And why would Rimsha's family keep a noorani qaida in the house?

"We don't have [Muslim] books in our home," Rimsha's father said. "We don't use them and none of us could read them."

[08] Perhaps the arrest of Rimsha's accuser is slowly but surely enabling fair-minded Pakistanis to rethink their attitude toward the blasphemy laws. At least that is the case if the following Pakistani voices are anything to go by.

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