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Pakistan court orders blasphemy law reforms

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (BP) — The effectiveness of a Supreme Court of Pakistan ruling that blasphemy laws be reformed to discourage false allegations hinges on the government’s response to the order, a leader of the International Christian Concern watchdog group told Baptist Press.

The three-judge Pakistani bench called for reforms when it upheld the death penalty imposed upon Malik Mohammad Mumtaz Qadri for assassinating in 2011 Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer based on hearsay that Taseer had committed blasphemy.

“In the absence of adequate safeguards against the abuse of the blasphemy law, people falsely accused of the offense suffer irrevocably,” the judgment written Oct. 27 reads, but confirms that the reforms must still protect blasphemy laws.

The ruling “ought to be understood as a call for introducing adequate safeguards against malicious application or use of [the blasphemy law] by motivated persons,” the judges wrote. “If our religion of Islam comes down heavily upon commission of blasphemy then Islam is also very tough against those who level false allegations of a crime.”

William Stark, International Christian Concern (ICC) regional manager for South Asia, said the judgment has only opened a door to reforms that “Pakistan as a society must take the steps to walk through.”

The government must enact legislation to “combat mob violence and extra-judicial killings,” “create harsh penalties for individuals who file false accusations of blasphemy,” and protect mentally ill defendants who may not have had a “deliberate intention to blaspheme,” Stark told BP.

Pakistan remains a dangerous country for Christians. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said in its 2015 annual report that the Pakistani government “failed to protect citizens, minority and majority alike, from sectarian and religiously-motivated violence, and Pakistani authorities have not consistently brought perpetrators to justice or taken action against societal actors who incite violence.”

For instance, on Oct. 14, a Pakistani court acquitted two Muslim men accused of kidnapping two Christian sisters from their village of Jaranwala, Faisalabad, and repeatedly raping them throughout the night, Morning Star News reported. The girls had identified the assailants as Muhammad Shahbaz and Muhammad Azeem, who lived in the same village.

Wilson Chowdhry, head of the British Pakistani Christian Association, told Morning Star News the 2014 case against the men was allegedly lost due to a key witness who changed his testimony in the face of threats and a bribe.

The family “didn’t get justice,” the girls’ father told Morning Star News. “The lawyer didn’t fight the case very well and with commitment. … We face serious life threats from the culprits now, as they are being released from jail. I will appeal to the High Court, because I want justice for my daughters.”

In another case concerning the persecution of Christians in Pakistan, Christian mother Aasiya Noreen, commonly known as Asia Bibi, is awaiting a trial date before the Pakistan Supreme Court in the appeal of her death sentence for blasphemy. Arrested in June 2009 after Muslim coworkers in a berry field beat her when she refused to convert to Islam following a quarrel, Bibi received her death sentence in November 2010. The Lahore High Court on Oct. 16, 2014 upheld the death sentence for the mother of two children and stepmother to three others.

The High Court’s ruling to reform blasphemy laws is an important move in protecting citizens from violent religious extremism, Peter Jacob, executive director for the Center for Social Justice, told ICC.

“Through this judgment, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa has ostensibly turned the tide on [the] oppressive environment against the discourse around rights and democratic values in this country,” Jacob said. “Yet, minorities and [liberals] in Pakistan, who have often been the targets of the laws misuse, might have to wait for complete success until the Parliament overcomes [its] lethargy and indecision.”

Jacob cited a 2014 hallmark decision by Chief Justice Tassaduq Jillani, now retired, that was widely viewed as having potential to protect citizens from violent extremism. But many of the mandates Jillani issued after an attack that killed 81 Christians at a church in Peshawar have either not been implemented or have been outsourced to other agencies, ICC said.

Specifically, the Pakistan federal government has made no moves to institute a task force to develop a strategy of religious tolerance, and has not appointed a special police force to protect places of worship for minorities, Stark told BP.

“When I was in Pakistan,” Stark said, “many of the church leaders I met with said that police officials told them that they needed to provide their own private form of security in order to meet this recommendation instead of a special police force being created.”

No criminal cases have been brought against those who desecrate places of worship of Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan as Jillani ordered, Stark said.

“I haven’t heard of any of these types of cases being brought,” Stark told BP, “despite multiple incidents of religious minorities’ places of worship being desecrated.”

The Pakistani federal government outsourced some of Jillani’s mandates to provincial governments in a move called a “National Action Plan.” The provincial governments are charged with implementing “appropriate curricula at school and college levels to promote a culture of religious and social tolerance,” and taking steps “to ensure that hate speeches in social media are discouraged and the delinquents brought to justice under the law,” but Stark said none of these changes has been made.

The federal government has at least one of Jillani’s mandates, Stark said. Specifically, the government has created a National Council for Minorities’ Rights, although Stark said the council’s authority and responsibilities have not been determined. Also in line with Jillani’s ruling, the Supreme Court has created a separate file to be placed before a three-member Bench to ensure that the judgment is followed, Stark said.

The ICC, formed in 1995, describes itself as a group to help the worldwide persecuted Christian church through assistance, awareness and advocacy.