Law students and law graduates in Pakistan are reporting for JURIST on events in that country impacting its legal system. University of London law graduate Mariyam Taher Qayyum files this dispatch from Islamabad.
Religious extremism is on the rise once again in Pakistan, a country that is persistently condemned for its disregard for human rights. The current blasphemy legislation in force in Pakistan leaves religious minorities particularly vulnerable to persecution.
Pakistan retained the British-acquired penal code after gaining its independence in 1947. The founding father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, devoted special attention to minorities in his inaugural speech to the Constituent Assembly on August 11th, 1947, asserting that people of every faith are allowed to visit their places of worship. A few years later, General Zia-ul-Haq came into power under a military dictatorship, heralding an era of “Islamization” that saw considerable changes to the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). With the help of fundamentalists, he started a far more rigorous Islamization of the nation, most notably through the blasphemy laws. The Pakistan Penal Code was revised several times between 1980 and 1986, and five sections were added that address blasphemy and other religious offences. Every clause in the blasphemy law was modified or changed when Zia was leader, and the intent or mens rea requirement was completely removed. Section 295-C of the PPC is undeniably the most contentious clause as it perpetuates the death penalty for defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammad. As Section 295-C is a strict liability offence without a “mental element,” it is easier to prove despite the fact that it carries the death sentence.
It is imperative to note that Pakistan’s governing class has historically acceded to fundamentalist clergy demands, perhaps in an attempt to secure their own rule or hinder the plans of their rivals. A person is “as good as dead” if they are accused of blasphemy, according to a study by Amnesty International. 84 people were charged for blasphemy in 2021, according to the Center for Social Justice (CSJ). Additionally, blasphemy laws contribute to a growing environment of dogma and hostility, leading to the creation of a culture of fanaticism and violence in addition to being the cause of a number of fallacious convictions. These allegations result in job discrimination, ostracism and exile, as well as violence and murder at the hands of enraged mobs. More than anyplace else, mob hysteria is vehemently fostered in cases of alleged blasphemy. On the other hand, in Pakistan, religious leaders and clerics have used mob mentality to create mayhem and destruction. Such beliefs perpetuate and encourage violence and the murder of innocent individuals, particularly minorities, in Pakistan.
Human Rights Without Frontiers reports that 1,860 people were accused of blasphemy between 1987 and August 2021, with 200 cases filed in 2020, which indicates a sharp rise. Additionally, after being detained on suspicion of blasphemy, more than 128 persons were murdered by vigilantes outside of any legal proceedings, with no opportunity of being investigated and no one being prosecuted. Throughout the year, attacks based on blasphemy are made against a number of religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus, and Islamic factions including the Shia and Ahmadiyya group. The manager of a factory in Sialkot, Punjab, Priantha Kumara, was attacked on December 3rd, 2021, by several hundred Muslim workers because she had taken down posters of the far-right extremist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which contained Islamic prayers. The perpetrators allegedly beat, stomped, and stoned him to death before lighting his body on fire, according to reports in the media.
In a recent Supreme Court judgment, Salamat Mansha Mashih v The State, Justice Qazi Faez Isa expressed dismay over the urge to accuse others, and claimed that every second person pointed a finger and accused others of disparaging religion without recognizing and acknowledging that this was not a straightforward or common offence, but instead bears the death penalty. A Christian park sweeper, Salamat Masih was accused of blasphemy after approaching a stranger and giving them a book. He spent more than a year of his life behind bars while anticipating what seemed to be a death sentence when the Supreme Court granted him bail. Hence, crimes relating to religion shall be dealt with diligently as they carry grave consequences.
With impunity from the state, vigilante mobs continue to carry out extrajudicial killings. Blasphemy laws still have a negative impact on the nation’s plurality and foster an ethos of radicalism and intolerance. Charges of blasphemy are founded on baseless allegations, motivated by the persecution of minorities and the desire to settle personal scores. Therefore, it is essential that the law be modified to provide minorities broader rights and more severe consequences for those who make false accusations.
Mariyam Taher Qayyum is a law graduate of the University of London External Program. She is currently working as a legal intern at the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the Islamabad High Court.