[JURIST] Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] on Tuesday called for the revocation [press release] of blasphemy laws [text; JURIST news archive] in Pakistan after a Christian woman was sentenced to death for insulting the Prophet Muhammad [JURIST news archive] during an argument with other women in her village last year. Asia Bibi, a mother of four, is the first woman to be sentenced to death under the blasphemy law, and her case has sparked international outrage and demands for her release [AP report]. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari [official website] has ordered a review [press release] and may use his constitutional authority to pardon her [BBC report]. Critics of the laws believe they have been used as a means of discrimination and inciting violence. In its statement, HRW called on the Pakistani government to take action against Islamic militant groups who are targeting minority religions:
Legal discrimination against religious minorities and the failure of Pakistan’s federal and provincial governments to address religious persecution by Islamist groups effectively enables atrocities against these groups and others who are vulnerable. The government seldom brings charges against those responsible for such violence and discrimination. Research by Human Rights Watch indicates that the police have not apprehended anyone implicated in such activity in the last several years.
The blasphemy laws were introduced in 1986 [AsiaNews report] as a way of protecting Muslim beliefs from insults. In response to the repeated calls for repeal, Pakistani Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti [official profile] said the laws may be amended [Reuters report] to prevent misuse, but they will not be repealed.
In May, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority [official website] ordered [JURIST report] Internet service providers to block [press release] social networking site Facebook [website] in response to a competition created by a group of the website’s members entitled “Draw Muhammad Day.” The PTA issued the order following a decision by the Lahore High Court (LHC) [JURIST news archive] to block the website indefinitely. Depicting the Prophet Muhammad is considered blasphemous by Muslims, and has been a source of international controversy since 2005 when a Danish newspaper published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a series of cartoons [JURIST news archive]. In February, Shahbaz Bhatti told the Agence France-Presse that he has been speaking to various political parties [JURIST report] in Pakistan and that his government is committed to doing away with laws [AP report] that are discriminatory to minorities. Bhatti made the comments at an interview with the AFP in Washington, DC, where he met with various lawmakers and officials during the National Prayer Breakfast. Bhatti discussed a proposed change in the law that would force judges to investigate blasphemy cases before they are docketed.