Arif Ali / AFP / Getty Images

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws snare minorities, activists

Analysis: Pakistanis accused of blasphemy and those who defend them are targets of violence and political pressure

ISLAMABAD — Saif-ul-Malook lives his life in fear these days, never knowing which direction a bullet might come from.

"I was threatened many times. I used to spend two or three days every week in the hospital, due to [heart trouble]," said the 58-year-old lawyer in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore. "Now I have police guards with me. But when I see them, somehow I feel more afraid."

"You have no idea who might shoot at you, anywhere, at any time," he added. "And when [religious clerics] tell them that firing on me will get them to heaven, why wouldn't they?"

Malook’s crime in the eyes of many hardline clerics and their followers is to have taken up the case of Aasia Noreen (better known as Aasia Bibi), a Christian woman accused of having committed blasphemy by insulting the Prophet Muhammad in 2009 after she got into an argument with two Muslim women over drinking water in a rural village in Punjab province.

In October 2014, the Lahore High Court upheld a verdict that saw Noreen convicted and sentenced to death in November 2010. Her legal team plans to appeal the case before the country's Supreme Court.

But Malook says that there were many irregularities in the trial, which garnered nationwide attention in Pakistan, and that the judge in the case was responding to public pressure on a hugely sensitive issue.

"The judge was not a judge,” he said. “He was acting as a disciple of the holy prophet, whereas he was supposed to act as a judge, listening to both party’s accounts. Now he is thinking that he has done something great for Islam."

Lawyers in the city of Lahore told Al Jazeera that the judge who sentenced Noreen to death proudly carries the pen he signed the decision with as a souvenir.

Abuse occurs 'regularly'

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws date back before independence to the British Raj, when they were introduced to quell growing communal unrest — primarily between Hindus and Muslims — on the Indian subcontinent prior to partition in 1947.

The laws were strengthened under military dictator Zia-ul-Haq in the 1970s, and cases have multiplied since. From just seven cases lodged between 1860 and 1947, Pakistan has seen more than 2,200 from 1977 to the present day, according to the Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC), a body of Muslim religious leaders.

Offenses under Pakistan’s Penal Code include insulting religious sentiments, defiling places of worship or copies of the Quran and insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Punishments range from one year to life in prison and, in some cases, the death penalty.

The blasphemy laws are "in violation of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and freedom of opinion and expression," Amnesty International said in its 2014 annual report.

You have no idea who might shoot at you, anywhere, at any time. And when [religious clerics] tell them that firing on me will get them to heaven, why wouldn't they?


Lawyer working on blasphemy cases

Lawyers and rights activists say blasphemy charges are often motivated by personal disputes.

"I think that the law to the point where if really there is factual blasphemy that occurs, then even I as a Muslim, I do not think that it is allowed," said Malook, who has defended several clients accused of blasphemy. "But practically what is happening, it seems it is used only to settle personal scores."

Tahir Ashrafi, chairman of the PUC, agrees.

"We see in many cases, like the Rimsha Masih case, or in cases where there is a personal dispute over land or money, these blasphemy laws are used to pressure people," he said.

Masih, a young Christian girl, was accused in August 2012 of having burned pages of the Quran. It was later discovered that a local cleric had torched the pages in an attempt to frame the local Christian community.

Ashrafi is trying to have the law amended so that those who wrongly accuse people of blasphemy are liable to face trial for the same offense, or at the very least are liable to the corresponding punishment.

According to Ashrafi and several attorneys who handle such cases, lawyers and judges are pressured — and often outright threatened — by religious groups to deliver guilty verdicts in blasphemy cases.

"The state does not have interest in pursuing these groups. And the local [bureaucratic] administration are also afraid and under pressure in these cases,” Ashrafi said. “If the state was really functional, then I don't think that groups like this could pressure the courts or police."

'The system is broken'

Increasingly, those accused of blasphemy have been attacked or killed outside the courts, even when legal cases against them were ongoing.

At least 65 people have been killed since 1990 in cases related to blasphemy.

Six of those cases occurred in the last year and include a lawyer who was shot after being threatened in front of a judge, a Christian couple burned to death by a mob and a man killed by an enraged officer while in police custody.

One of the most high-profile murders occurred on Jan. 4, 2011, when Punjab province’s then-Gov. Salman Taseer was killed by his own security guard, Mumtaz Qadri, for publicly defending Aasia Noreen and calling for amendments to the blasphemy law to better protect minorities. Qadri murdered Taseer in broad daylight in front of several witnesses in a market in Islamabad.

Malook, who also represented the state in its prosecution of Qadri, said he feared for his life when he went to court because of the large number of Qadri’s well-wishers among the legal community.

Qadri is currently appealing his death sentence for the self-confessed murder at an Islamabad court, and is being represented by, among others, a former chief justice of the Lahore High Court (LHC) as well as a 14-year veteran of the LHC bench, both of whom have argued that the murder was justified due to Qadri’s wounded religious sentiments.

"Naveed Akhtar [Qadri’s lawyer] was a judge at the LHC for 14 years, and now he has argued at this stage that Qadri killed [Taseer] absolutely correctly," Malook said. And "this is a man who has been a High Court judge for 14 years," he added.

"So the system is broken."

Mullahs 'on a pedestal'

Angry demonstrators destroy a house of a Christain during a protest over alleged blasphemous remarks by a Christian in Lahore on March 9, 2013, when angry protestors set ablaze more than 100 houses of Pakistani Christians.
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Opportunities to reform the blasphemy law appear limited, Ashrafi admits. Lawmakers who have called for such changes have been threatened with death, or — as in the case of Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, then a federal minister — outright killed.

The result is an apparently decreased parliamentary appetite for approaching the law. No proposed amendments have made it to the floor of the National Assembly for years.

The last time an amendment bill was proposed (in late 2010), the prime minister had it withdrawn from parliament’s legislative agenda. It was never voted on.

Ashrafi is raising the matter the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), a legal advisory body to the government, but even clerics considered "moderate," such as him, do not support major changes to the law.

A section of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, for example, deals with the issue of the Ahmadiyya, a minority Islamic movement that was founded in late 19th-century India and that some Muslim clerics deem heretical.

The laws, passed in 1974 and 1984, make it illegal for Ahmadiyya to refer to themselves as "Muslims," to refer to their places of worship as "mosques," or even to their call to prayer as the "azan," as Muslims do, among several other restrictions.

After the passage of the laws there has an increase in attacks against the Ahmadiyya. At least 246 of them have been killed in targeted attacks since 1984, according to statistics maintained by the community.

Of those, 14 were killed last year alone, including two infants killed who died when a mob burned down their home in July 2014. 

Ashrafi, however, said that Ahmadis do not fall under the category of those who are wrongfully accused in blasphemy cases and that the laws directly targeting the community do not need amendments.

"With Christians, it is always about land, but with Qadianis I have never seen a case in my knowledge where it was unjustified to lodge a case," he said, using a derogatory term for Ahmadis.

"We are all united in not allowing them to besmirch the name of Islam. In many cases they are the ones who are acting against the state or insulting Islam," he says.

Saleemuddin, a spokesman for the Ahmadi community, disagrees, saying that most cases lodged against members of the community “are based on personal disputes,” and that the law is "very unfairly applied."

"The government is a part and parcel of [this persecution] declaring us non-Muslim in 1974. The government can't stop [groups that attack us] when they have declared this already through a constitutional amendment," he said. "The clerics do take it further, but the base is coming from the laws and constitutional amendment. The government creates an atmosphere for this to happen."

On the possibility of the Ahmadi-specific laws being amended, Saleemuddin’s assessment may well apply to the laws in general:

"I don't think they will be able to amend the laws,” he said. "They have raised the mullah to the pedestal, after that it is difficult for them to ignore him."

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