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Pakistan's anti-blasphemy laws are ripe for misuse and abuse

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
September 7th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Pakistan is generating global headlines due to its controversial anti-blasphemy laws. The arrest and imprisonment of an 11-year-old Christian girl for allegedly burning pages of the Noorani Qaida may be shocking, but it's only one of the eight to 15 cases of blasphemy that reach the Pakistani courts annually.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The majority of the blasphemy cases involve members of the Muslim majority here - rather than Pakistan's Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis who are charged.

Without a legal definition of blasphemy in the Pakistan Penal Code, the strict anti-blasphemy laws here are ripe for misuse and abuse. Those accused of blasphemy usually arise from personal and religious rivalries.

The punishment for those found guilty can range from a fine to death. However, there has never been an execution of a person charged with blasphemy in Pakistan. Convictions typically result in a prison sentence of at least three years.

There is a high rate of acquittal upon appeal. Unfortunately, the legal avenues for redress usually end in mob justice. When somebody is accused of blasphemy, they, their family and their community will likely be targeted.

Many feel the laws currently on the books run counter with Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

"You may belong to any religion, caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the state. In due course of time, Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims will cease to be Muslims - not in a religious sense for that is the personal faith of an individual - but in a political sense as citizens of one state," declared Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder, in his first address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947.

In the latest instance, many of the Christian neighbors of the accused 11-year old reportedly fled their homes in the slum area of Islamabad where the Christian community is largely located. They claimed either fear of attack, or reports that senior members of the Muslim community allegedly pressured landlords to evict Christian tenants.

A man suspected of being mentally ill and accused of throwing pages of the Quran onto a street last month was hauled out from police custody in southern Punjab by a mob of hundreds, beaten to death, and his body set ablaze.

 "What comes with the mob mentality is that people would not even want to verify [the facts of a case]," Ejaz Akram, professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences says. "Mob psychology overrules common sense ... Everything is seen as black and white [and] the most unintelligent with the loudest voice commands the mob."

There have been 34 suspected extrajudicial killings of people accused of blasphemy between 1990 and 2010. Of those, 15 were Muslims, 16 were Christians, two were Ahmadis and one was a Hindu. They were either killed extra-judicially or found dead in prison under suspicious circumstances. Thirty-one of those deaths occurred in Punjab.

"Nobody has read the blasphemy law. Nobody understands which clauses were added when and why," Syed Zaid Hamid, a political commentator says. "It has become a weapon that is being used in sectarian wars. Facts and figures show that it is used against Muslims as well. The real problem lies with the interpretation of the law.

"We are against the religious fanatics who exploit this law. There are fundamental flaws in it," he adds.

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