Islamabad, November 30: Members of civil society, religious scholars, lawyers, NGO representatives and the Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, gathered to discuss the amendments to the Blasphemy Laws in light of the recent case of Aasia Bibi and the blatant abuse of the legislation to persecute minorities. The event, organized solely by the Jinnah Institute without the involvement of foreign donors, led to a lively and informed debate.
Under discussion also, was a bill submitted by Sherry Rehman, former federal minister, and President Jinnah Institute. The Bill seeks to amend the Blasphemy Laws, sections 295A-C and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and the Code of Criminal Procedure (CCrP) as amended under General Zia. It is intended, that the Bill will ensure that all citizens of Pakistan have an equal right to constitutional protection and that miscarriages of justice in the name of Blasphemy are avoided at all costs.
“If laws are to be made, they must be made for the protection of the people, not to exploit the people in the name of religion,” these comments were made by the renowned Muslim scholar, Professor Javed Ahmed Ghamdi via Video Conferencing at a Round Table meeting organized by the Jinnah Institute . Professor Ghamdi categorically stated that blasphemy laws are contradictory to the teachings of both Quran and Sunnah. According to Professor Ghamdi, in Islam, the death penalty can be applied by a court as punishment only in the case of intentional murder or “fasad fil-ardh” (spreading of mischief in the land).
The blasphemy law has been in place since the Colonial era but only a limited number of cases resulted in convictions during that time. However, religious scholars and leaders gained access to policy making during General Zia’s rule and a new set of stricter blasphemy laws were passed, after which the number of cases escalated. This religious lobby wanted to promote its political agenda. According to Professor Ghamdi, the Prophet(PBUH) does not need law making to defend him and the blasphemy law that exists is based purely on our emotions and not on Islamic jurisprudence.
Dr Khalid Masood (Former Chairman, Council of Islamic Ideology) provided a scholarly summary of the contentious laws in relation to Islam, explaining that the definition of blasphemy or ‘sab-o-shitam’ is unclear and that the severe penalties provided by the legislation do not find any reference in the Koran or Hadith.
Dr Masood stated that in the Quran there is no ayat that justifies saza on tauheen e risalat, not to say that it is condoned and pardoned. It has been said that God will give punishment. In fiqh, all moslim scholars have different views, to think that all say the same in incorrect.
A minority syndrome existed in India, where muslims were fewer in number and were on the defensive. Where in a society where the muslims are now in a majority they should preferably have a different response to this issue. We must keep in consideration that whatever law is made, it does not lead to the disrepute of Islam. Whoever the accused is, he should be given a fair chance, issues should not be solved through hollow slogans.
Sherry Rehman noted that as the law currently stands the definition of the term blasphemy is vague, yet it carries a mandatory death sentence under section 295C. The Amendment to the Blasphemy Laws Act 2010 will not only rationalize the punishments prescribed for offences relating to religion provided under section 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code but ensure that the concept of criminal intent is taken into account when charging an individual with this offence. Other amendments include new sections (198E and 203A) to ensure that charges brought frivolously under the Blasphemy Laws will be punished. Similarly, advocating religious hatred will be penalized. Cases brought under these sections will be heard in the High Court to ensure more public scrutiny.
Sherry Rehman, made it clear that it is essential not only to “remove the teeth and infamous use of the Blasphemy Laws but to understand the way forward for our society, as minorities and vulnerable communities remain the most exploited members of society.” She sais that “we need to seek out a way of removing these laws from the statute books”.
Ali Dayan Hasan (Human Rights Watch and Board of Advisors Jinnah Institute) compared the ongoing persecution of minorities under the Blasphemy Laws to apartheid in South Africa. Dr Anis Haroon (Chair NCSW) also spoke in detail about, the case of Aasia Bibi, a Christian labourer sentenced to death under s.295C of the PPC. Anis Haroon said that “We live in such an intolerant culture where mosques take over the role of the judiciary…any laws which take away the rights of any culture should be repealed.” Aasia’s case is a glaring example of how innocent people can be wrongfully charged and sentenced to death under these unfair laws.
Leading members of the Christian Community, including Group Captain (retd.) Cecil Chaudhary and Joseph Francis provided detailed examples of injustices suffered by their community under the auspices of the Blasphemy laws. Members of the Christian communities felt that their homes are targeted and their lives are threatened on a daily basis due to these laws.
Asma Jahangir stated that “if we believe in rule of law, we must believe that laws should protect the religious rights of minorities rather than as a tool to exploit religion.” She said that we need to rethink our laws in the name of justice and compassion. She exhorted the gathering to ‘please not twist the law because these judgments create a precedent.’
Shabaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minorites, thanked the Jinnah Institute for organizing this important meeting. He highlighted the difficulties surrounding the Aasia Bibi case and explained that if the withdrawal of the blasphemy laws is not possible then amendments must be made to prevent the continuing suffering of people under these laws. He expressed his personal support of the Bill and said he would seek the support of the Government of Pakistan in moving it forward. He was vocal about the discriminative justice that is meted out to the minority communities in Pakistan and called for change in this country with a move towards Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan.
The meeting ended with representatives of the Christian community calling for the repeal of section 295 and the engagement of civil society in providing an adequate response, which goes further than just repeal. Emotional appeals for assistance with specific cases were also made. Sherry Rehman concluded that it is important for civil society and legislators to work hand in hand.