Pakistan's blasphemy law increasingly used against religious minorities
Many now face death penalty, life imprisonment.
To date, no one has been put to death under Pakistan's blasphemy law. However, the law is increasingly being used by Muslim extremists. Vigilantes frequently entrap and sometimes kill adherents of minority religions accused of blasphemy. A climate of fear has forced browbeaten judges into holding court sessions inside jails. In addition, witnesses have been prevented from coming to the defense of those on trial.
Thirty-four people were charged with blasphemy last year. A government statistic says 27 were charged in 2012, according to According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. At least 16 people are currently on death row for blasphemy, while another 20 are serving life sentences, according to Human Rights Watch.
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"In the last three years we have seen a large increase in the number of cases of blasphemy," Keith Davies, head of RescueChristians says. The group is a U.S.-based charity that started operations in Pakistan four years ago.
Several Christians are reportedly waiting for travel documents to secretly leave Pakistan, while others are in jail awaiting trial and targeted for death by militant groups.
Pakistan's blasphemy law predates the founding of the country in 1947, when it seceded from India. During the 1980s, the U.S.-backed military dictator, Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq amended it to add the death penalty and single out Islam as the religion that may not be insulted, among other changes.
Pakistan is far from the only country with blasphemy laws. Blasphemy is punishable in more than 30 countries, including some with predominantly Christian populations, such as Poland and Greece.
The majority of Pakistan's 180 million people are Sunni Muslims who do not support the militants' violence or their intolerance for religious minorities. Shiite Muslims there complain that even the smallest quarrel can land them in jail on trumped-up blasphemy charges.
While some support blasphemy laws, the Pakistani version has been derided as "ambiguous" and easily distorted by militant Sunnis who want to rid the country of Shiites.
In an example of the swift and brutal changes that can be wrought by blasphemy charges here, Governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by his own guard after defending a Christian woman charged with blasphemy three years ago.
One religious minority in Pakistan under attack is the Ahmadiyya sect contends that the Mehdi or savior, who is prophesized in Islam, came about 100 years ago. This belief challenges Prophet Muhammad's position as Islam's last prophet, a basic tenet of the faith. Pakistan amended its constitution in 1974 to make it a crime for Ahmadis, as they are called, to identify themselves as Muslims.
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