Pakistani Government Drafts Bill to Revise Discriminatory Laws

( [email protected] ) Jul 14, 2004 11:11 AM EDT

In the face of a growing international campaign for the repeal of the blasphemy laws and the Hudood Ordinances, the Pakistani Government announced last week that it would introduce a new bill to revise these laws.

According to U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), the draft ‘Criminal Law (Amendment) Act’ will revise the Hudood Ordinances and the blasphemy laws, and criminalize so-called ‘honor’ killings. The news was announced July 8 by Pakistan’s Justice Minister, Raza Hayat Hiraj, who said the draft would be presented to the Cabinet for approval. It was subsequently tabled in the National Assembly, and, according to CSW’s source, is now with the Council of Islamic Ideology. The bill was drafted with input from the Supreme Court, which has already ruled that ‘honor killings’ should be considered as murder.

The Government’s move to reform these laws comes after the killings of several Christians in recent months, including Samuel Masih, accused of blasphemy, and Javed Anjum, murdered by maulvis (mullahs) at a madrassah (Islamic school). International pressure has mounted on the Pakistani authorities to take action to curb religious intolerance, and last month President Pervez Musharraf called for ‘scrutiny’ of the blasphemy laws and the Hudood ordinances, and an end to ‘honor killings’.

The Hudood Ordinances, introduced in 1979, deal with Islamic laws relating to criminal acts. These include the requirement that a married woman who has been raped must provide four Muslim male witnesses otherwise the rape is considered adultery.

Cecil Chaudhry, a leading campaigner for human rights and religious freedom in Pakistan, and a member of the Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Commission, told CSW that the proposed draft bill does not go far enough: “The stand of the women of Pakistan, and the non-Muslim minorities, has been to call for the total repeal of the blasphemy laws and the Hudood ordinances. The total repeal of these laws was also the recommendation of the Women’s Commission formed by the government itself.”

In regard to the move to declare ‘honor killings’ as a crime, Mr Chaudhry said there was no need for new legislation. Existing laws under Section 302 of the Pakistan Penal Code already provided for the crime of murder, punishable with the death penalty. “Murder is murder, and honor killings are murder, so Section 302 already covers this crime,” he argued.

Mervyn Thomas, CSW’s Chief Executive, welcomed the draft bill, but urged the Pakistani Government to go further. “Hundreds of people of all religions, including Muslims and Christians, have suffered unimaginable injustices and danger as a result of the blasphemy laws and the Hudood ordinances. We are pleased that the Pakistani authorities are now taking steps to address the discrimination, persecution and killings that have resulted from these unjust laws, but we do not believe that the laws can be revised or reformed. We stand with the women and the minorities of Pakistan in urging the Government to completely repeal these laws, and create a new atmosphere of religious freedom and tolerance.”

For more than 20 years, the blasphemy laws have been widely misused and caused fear and suffering. It is not only Christians whose security is jeopardized by these laws. Other minorities, such as the Ahmadis, and indeed Muslims themselves are affected by the legislation. It only requires the testimony of one Muslim man to bring charges against another person for blasphemy, and so the law has been used as a tool in disputes that have nothing to do with religion. The ultimate penalty is death, although no one has been executed under the laws.

Since 1986, a total of 579 people have been charged under the blasphemy laws. The majority of these, at least 289, are Muslims, while 203 are Ahmadis. At least 79 Christians have been charged, including Tahir Iqbal, a Christian convert from Islam, arrested in 1992 and poisoned to death in jail.

There are currently 75 blasphemy cases awaiting or undergoing trial. These include 59 Muslims, three Ahmadis, three Hindus and ten Christians. The Christians include Parvez Masih, Anwar Kenneth and Augustine Ashiq ‘Kingri’ Masih.