Friday, December 4, 2015

Khaled Ahmed - The curse of the law: victims of Pakistan’s blasphemy law are mostly the poor and the helpless

The Supreme Court of Pakistan delivered a historic “observation” on October 27 when it decided that asking for “improvements” in the country’s blasphemy law was not objectionable. Imagine, it took a court verdict to enable a citizen to criticise what is the most draconian law in Pakistan, snagging innocent citizens to death.

The court actually stated: “Any call for reforming the blasphemy law (Section 295-C Pakistan Penal Code) ought not to be mistaken as a call for doing away with that law; and it ought to be understood as a call for introducing adequate safeguards against malicious application or use of that law by motivated persons.”

The court was hearing the case of a murderer who can’t be hanged despite a conviction because he had killed a man after blaming him for blasphemy in 2011 — then Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer. There is the street power of conservative lawyers and religious sects favouring him. In the background, there are more powerful elements with outreach, which protect them and scare normal citizens, including the judges — the terrorist organisations Pakistan first gave birth to and now fears.

Taseer’s killer belonged to an “elite force” police commando assigned to him for his protection. Taseer had been speaking out against the biased judicial process prosecuting a poor Christian woman, Aasiya Bibi, under the blasphemy law. The Supreme Court defended Taseer by saying that his corrective criticism of the law was fair and that the killer policeman, therefore, had to hang.

In February 2011, in the wake of the murder, Stephen Cohen, author of a number of books on Pakistan, had this to say: “These are symptoms of a deeper problem in Pakistan. There is not going to be any good news from Pakistan for some time, if ever, because the fundamentals of the state are either failing or questionable. This applies to both the idea of Pakistan, the ideology of the state, the purpose of the state, and also to the coherence of the state itself. Pakistan has lost a lot of its stateness, that is, the qualities that make a modern government function effectively. So there’s failure in Pakistan on all counts. I wouldn’t predict a comprehensive failure soon but clearly that’s the direction in which Pakistan is moving.”

Do we finally have the “good news” Cohen was despairing of? If you look at it from the point of view of Aasiya Bibi rotting in jail, it is hardly any news. The Supreme Court has spoken from its Olympian perch, but the factory of unilateral conviction grinds on at the level of the district courts. The court was probably aware of it because it recalled that “434 offenders under blasphemy laws were arrested in Pakistan from 1953 to July 2012; and among them 258 were Muslims, 114 Christians, 57 Ahmadis and 4 Hindus.” The statement could be misleading because it didn’t note that blasphemy cases spiked only after the blasphemy law was imposed by General Zia-ul-Haq in the late 1980s. And if you go by proportion ratios, then  it is not Muslims who have been most entrapped under this law but Christians and Hindus.

One lame excuse is that if you don’t have the law, people will dish out their own justice by killing the accused. Since 1990, much after the legislation, 52 people have been extra-judicially murdered for insulting the Prophet. The fact is that the law has prompted the killers to kill. Many of the killers are not “outraged” but are motivated by the lure of property-grab. Christians are attractive victims because their slums are often located on prime land, much of it leased to them by the British Raj in areas then uninhabited.

In 2013, 15 Christians, five Ahmadis and two Hindus, accused under the law, languished in jail because the alleged offence is non-bailable. Do the judges let off victims after finding them wrongfully accused? No, they are too scared to do what their conscience might recommend. Only one death sentence was overturned in 2013-14. Today, 17 innocent citizens are waiting for their trial to end while 20 others are consoled that they have to serve life sentences. No one has been hanged for blasphemy so far, but the modus operandi in Pakistan is this — let the price of a bad law be paid by innocent victims by staying indefinitely in jail.

Lawyers and retired judges who indulge in this sick pastime of punishing blasphemy don’t care if the victims are mostly poor people who can’t afford effective professional defence in court. Sadly, if these poor people are defended by a rare lawyer dedicated to human rights, he can be killed too. A Multan lawyer, Rashid Rehman Khan, was killed last year in such a case by a powerful ex-jihadi gang after telling him that he was in their cross hairs. Before his “foretold” death, Rehman said, “Defending a blasphemy accused in Pakistan is like walking into the jaws of death.”

There is no mitigation for blasphemy, since judges are scared of letting the accused walk. They are supposed to spend long periods in jail, roughly calculated at an average of eight years. Of course, no one has been acquitted, but in one case where a Christian was to get foreign asylum, it took that length of time, which means the life of the innocent victim was seriously curtailed.

See also:
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Javed Anand - Ms Wadud, we are ashamed

Joint Statement of Religious Leaders On “Supreme Court order on Section 377”
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Two persons arrested for Facebook post on Mumbai shutdown after Bal Thackeray's death
Call on the Catholic Archdiocese of Bombay to encourage the withdrawal of complaints against Indian Rationalist Sanal Edamaruku
LUMS fires Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy
Maryam Namazie: Defend Bangladesh's Bloggers
Tableeghi Jamaat members can knock at any door anywhere in the West. But Christian missionaries cannot proselytize the Muslim world
Ulema demand expulsion of Taslima Nasreen - Let's defend her right to live & speak
Salman Rushdie - ON CENSORSHIP

Communal fanatics continue their assault on free speech & expression - Kolkata TV serial based on Taslima Nasrin's script put off indefinitely

Salman Rushdie - We're all too easily offended these days
VHP disrupts Hyderabad's Kashmir Film Festival
Gita Sahgal - Bangladesh: Blasphemy, Genocide and Violence Against Women
Taslima Nasreen - ‘Religion Is The Biggest Bane For Any Democracy’
Syed Badrul Ahsan calls for Taslima's return - Our writers, our moral parameters

New Age Islam Website Is Banned In Pakistan
Taksim, Convergence, and Secular Space // Turkey, the end of Islamism with a human face
Khaled Ahmed - A culture of haters
Khaled Ahmed - Rollback nations (NEWSWEEK PAKISTAN)
Interview with Karima Bennoune, author of 'Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here'
Woman filmmaker in Iran sentenced to 18 months in prison
The religious persecution of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1945-2010)/ Interview: My life fighting intolerance/ Mahmoud Mohammed Taha & the Second Message of Islam

Mahmoud Mohammed Taha (Author of Second Message of Islam); also known as Ustaz Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, was a Sudanese religious thinker, leader, and trained engineer. He was executed for apostasy at the age of 76 by the regime of Gaafar Nimeiry(See his Court statement)
THE MODERATE MARTYR - A radically peaceful vision of Islam
Najam Sethi - Pakistan: Pluralism and tolerance

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