Pakistan’s blasphemy law has claimed its first Bollywood victim.
On Nov. 26, a court in Gilgit, Pakistan, sentenced Mir Shakil ur-Rehman — the owner of Geo TV, the country’s largest media group — Bollywood star Veena Malik, her husband Asad Malik and television host Shayesta Lodhi to 26-year prison terms for violating multiple blasphemy provisions of the country’s penal code.
The court based its conviction on a Geo TV skit aired on May 14 starring Veena Malik that re-enacted her wedding, while drawing an explicit parallel with the wedding ceremony of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter.
Just 10 days later, police launched an investigation into blasphemy allegations against pop star turned preacher Junaid Jamshed stemming from an online video in which Jamshed allegedly disparages one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives.
But Jamshed, Malik and her high profile co-defendants should consider themselves fortunate. Unlike far too many of those accused of blasphemy in Pakistan, they are still alive.
On Nov. 4, an angry mob attacked a Christian couple, Shama and Shahzad Masih, in Kot Radha Kishan in Punjab for suspected blasphemy. The couple was savagely beaten and then burned to death in a brick kiln. The next day, a police officer in Gujrat, also in Punjab, decapitated a mentally unstable man who was in custody in the city’s police station for allegedly committing blasphemy. In September police opened fire on an elderly British-Pakistani man imprisoned on blasphemy charges, wounding him.
In today’s Pakistan, an accusation of blasphemy can be a death sentence.
Such incidents are becoming tragically routine. On March 9, 2013, police stood by while a thousand-strong mob, ostensibly enraged by blasphemy allegations against Sawan Masih, a Christian sanitation worker, attacked his residential community of Joseph’s Colony in Lahore. The crowd looted and then burned down more than 150 houses as the police stood by without intervening. The Punjab provincial government has failed to bring any perpetrators to justice. Adding insult to injury, while courts failed to convict any of his assailants, Masih was later sentenced to death for blasphemy.
Pakistan’s blasphemy law, as section 295-C of the penal code is known, is the root of these gross abuses. Hundreds are held every year for various offenses under other similar statutes, but 295-C makes the death penalty effectively mandatory for transgressions that fall under its scope.
To date there have been no executions yet carried out for it, but at least 19 people in the country are on death row for blasphemy. The law is largely used against members of religious minorities, while the government rarely brings charges against those responsible for attacks on people — often the victims of personal disputes — accused of blasphemy.
Pakistan’s judiciary and security forces help ensure the lethality of blasphemy charges. On Oct. 17, the Lahore High Court confirmed the death sentence handed down on Aasia Bibi, the first woman in Pakistan’s history to be sentenced to death for blasphemy. Bibi fell afoul of the law in June 2009 after an altercation with fellow farm workers who refused to drink water she had touched, contending it was unclean because she was Christian. On Nov. 8, 2009, the Sheikhupura District Court convicted her, ruling that there were “no mitigating circumstances.” In January 2010, a security officer assassinated the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, for visiting Bibi in prison and denouncing her conviction.
Despite the blasphemy law’s growing body count, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has turned a blind eye to these abuses. Sharif has failed to speak out publicly against the law and its use to attack religious minorities — and, incredibly, even when militant Islamists target Pakistani government officials in its name.
In 2011, the Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated in reprisal for his public support for reforming the blasphemy law. Shortly after spraying Bhatti with bullets, gunmen scattered pamphlets signed off by “Taliban al Qaida Punjab” calling Bhatti a “Christian infidel.” Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, Sherry Rehman, was charged under the blasphemy law for introducing a reform bill in parliament the same year. She remains under threat from extremists and yet the courts have been unwilling to acquit her.
Not even the assassination of Rashid Rahman, a prominent human rights defender and member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, who was murdered for representing a university lecturer accused of blasphemy, convinced the government to break its silence — so absolutely had it capitulated to violent extremists.
The Pakistan government’s tolerance for the blasphemy law and the violence it provokes reflects the failure of its policy of its politically expedient accommodation of extremist violence. The law, introduced in the 1980s by military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, was part of a broader effort to make the Pakistani society more “Islamic.” At the time, current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif openly supported its introduction.
To shed that stigma, Sharif should seek the immediate repeal of the blasphemy law. In the interim, the Pakistani government has the responsibility to ensure protections for the accused and a fair trial. Sharif also needs to task police to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Kot Radha Kishan killings and other crimes committed in the name of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The international community has an obligation to press the Pakistan government to repeal the law and prosecute all those responsible for planning and executing attacks on religious minorities.
With pressure from outside and decisive action from the Pakistani government, there is still hope that the country can become a more tolerant one. In the meantime, thousands will suffer under a climate of suspicion and state-sponsored abuse.