Islamabad (AsiaNews) – Life imprisonment is not enough for blasphemers; the only permissible punishment is the death penalty, this according to a recent ruling by Pakistan’s Federal Sharia Court, which struck down Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code, leaving the death penalty as the only possible form of punishment. Together with Sections 295 A and 295 B, Section 295 C constituted the so-called ‘blasphemy law’.
After the court heard a contempt of court petition filed by lawyer Hashmat Habib, Justice Fida Hussain issued orders to remove the provision of life imprisonment from the blasphemy law, stating that only death is the punishment for blasphemy in accordance with a 1990 Hadood ordinance, which according to the lawyer who filed the appeal, has never been enforced so far.
Blasphemy charges in the Asian country, which has gone through a gradual process of Islamisation in recent years, tend to end in a court conviction or extrajudicial killings that mostly go unpunished.
“Under Nawaz Sharif’s leadership,” minorities have always experienced “dark times,” anonymous sources told AsiaNews. Sharif became Prime Minister in May 2013 but held office twice before, in the 1990s. During “his first term”, the death penalty was enforced” and serious incidents of anti-Christian violence occurred during that period.
Human rights activists at the Masihi Foundation insist that the principles enshrined by the founder of modern Pakistan, Ali Jinnah, should be enforced, including equal rights for religious minorities.
“Charges of blasphemy take on a terrible poignancy when they turn into mass attacks against a single minority,” they said, which is what happened in Lahore in March 2013, in Gojra in 2009, and before that, in Shanti Nagar (1997) and Sangla Hill (2005).
For years, the Catholic and Protestant Churches have been calling for the repeal of the ‘black law’. Introduced in 1986 by then dictator Zia al-Haq to meet the demands of Islamist groups, the law imposes life imprisonment or the death sentence on anyone who desecrates the Koran or insults the name of the Prophet Muhammad.
In 2009, AsiaNews led an international campaign to raise awareness about the law, but no Pakistani political party or government has ever tried to touch the law. Those who did advocate changes, like Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, paid with their life for trying.
According to figures put together by the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) of the Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, at least 964 people have been charged under the blasphemy law between 1986 and 2009, including 479 Muslims, 119 Christians, 340 Ahmadis, 14 Hindus and 10 of unknown religion.
Over this period, more than 40 extra-judicial killings (by individuals or mobs) have taken place against innocent people. Mentally and physically disabled people and minors have also been put on trial for blasphemy, including Rimsha Masih who was falsely accused and later acquitted after a massive pressure campaign on Islamabad.
Pakistani analysts and policy experts note that the decision by the Sharia court is a further sign of the country’s progressive Islamisation.
Paul Bhatti, a former federal minister of National Harmony and brother of the “martyred” Shahbaz Bhatti, agrees. In his view, violence “does not spare anyone, including the armed forces and Muslim politicians.”
For this reason, as the leader of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), he has backed the creation of a “Supreme Council of Religions”, that would bring together Sunni, Shia, Christian, Sikh, and Hindu leaders chosen “by election, and not appointment” to settle “matters or disputes of a religious nature, like fatwas and blasphemy.”
For the Catholic political activist, the country is going through a critical time, a situation that has been exacerbated by internal divisions and external interference, such as “the activities of some NGOs that often do not work for the good of the people, but operate with ulterior motives or out of pure self-interest “.
“Christian suffering and episodes of discrimination” are “directly proportional” to the country’s political and economic stability,” he explained. In fact, “as things have generally deteriorated, so has the situation for minorities,” he noted. Hence, what Pakistan needs is “peace, stability and social justice” because only they can “attract foreign investment, create jobs and provide opportunities for development.”
“That’s why we at the APMA want to promote specific small industrial projects that offer job opportunities, including for women,” Paul Bhatti said. “Once education was the priority, now the real problem is poverty.”