VIEW: Laws that insult reason and justice — I —Peter Jacob - Friday, December 10, 2010

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The point that our religious parties seem to ignore is that the fault lies within the content and intent of the blasphemy laws themselves. The assumptions and the very scheme of these laws are manifested to be at cross-purposes with justice and the rights of the citizens

After a considerable wait for some initiative on the part of the parliamentary sub-committee reviewing blasphemy laws and the concerned ministries, Sherry Rehman moved a bill in parliament on November 24, 2010. Unlike the bill she moved against the Hudood Ordinances during her previous tenure as a member of the National Assembly (MNA), the current bill does not seek to repeal the five sections of the Pakistan Penal Code known as the blasphemy laws. It rather outlines some safeguards to stop the abuse of law and religion. Therefore, the bill proposed 12 amendments in both the Pakistan Penal Code as well as Criminal Procedure Code.

It is not known so far when parliament will discuss the bill, which will largely depend on the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leadership having enough courage to do so. Tabling of the bill is nevertheless a breakthrough that the government can rely upon. Especially, the credentials of the mover of the bill as a principled, independent and conscientious voice can help the treasury if they decide to make any meaningful progress on this highly important issue.

The leadership of the ruling parties in Punjab and the Centre neither took a position in favour nor against the bill but some ministers and parliamentarians from different parties expressed their support for and against any amendment to the blasphemy laws. Importantly, civil society organisations and media have begun to take the issue to the common people, while certain religious organisations have taken a tough position against any amendment, as expected.

Well-meaning and courageous people who dare to ask for the blasphemy laws to be repealed or changed are met with accusations of themselves being guilty of committing blasphemy, something the government should have taken notice of because then there will be no discussion. Branding the demand for repeal ‘sacrilegious’, religious outfits forced some campaigners to limit their argument even around the misuse of the law, let alone taking a position on an inherently bad piece of legislation.

The point that our religious parties seem to ignore is that the fault lies within the content and intent of the blasphemy laws themselves. The assumptions and the very scheme of these laws are manifested to be at cross-purposes with justice and the rights of the citizens. The manner in which sections 295B and 295C, 298A, 298B and 298C were inducted in the Pakistan Penal Code also shows that the result could not have been different. Talking about the text first, the formulation and the content of the above-mentioned sections violate four major safeguards in criminal justice, i.e. not guilty until proven, clarity in law, the verifiable element of intent in a crime and parity of citizens before the law. On the contrary, the law is framed with the corresponding faulty assumptions.

The first assumption is that the offence is committed already and it merely needs to be punished, hence no safeguards were considered necessary by General Ziaul Haq’s draftsmen while making these extraordinary amendments in the law, whereas criminal law around the world has inbuilt verification methods and procedures for such exceptional legislation. These laws create and nurture a mindset of religious insecurity, ignorance and self-righteousness that facilitates a primitive practice of crime in the name of religion. Thus the procedural amendment, about investigation by a high ranking police official in 2004, failed to yield any results in the area of application of the law.

The second assumption is that the offence is well defined, therefore there is no need to define what constitutes the offence of insult. These sections speak only about the mode and manner the supposed insult could be offered and do not define what constitutes the offence of insult. The very draft of the blasphemy laws ignores that the concept of insult and respect varies from person to person, culture to culture, and from one social group to the other. This lacuna could not have brought a result any different from what we see. True that the civil law defines defamation and insult, but that is civil law, which does not carry heavy penalties like a number of years of imprisonment and capital punishment. Moreover, civil law does not deal with a matter as sensitive as offences relating to religion.

The third assumption is that the faith of an overwhelming majority in the country needs protection of the law against any possible insult while the religious minorities can do without it. Not that other faith groups need similar laws but the blasphemy laws failed to see that the country had other faith groups who do not subscribe to the religion under question, hence the other faiths needed to be treated as an exception. Some Islamic scholars categorically pointed out the irrationality of application of the blasphemy laws on non-Muslims.

It is very clear that you cannot have an ambiguous and illogical text of a law and not have problems with justice and application of the law. The blasphemy laws became a tool for hate crimes and incitement. With these laws in place, the people of Pakistan cannot see an end to their worries regarding religious intolerance because injustices under and by the law perpetuate and form a legacy that is harder to remove.

(To be continued)

The writer is a Lahore-based human rights activist and can be reached at

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