Changes to Pakistani Blasphemy Law Inadequate, Say Christian Leaders

Recent changes to the Blasphemy Law approved by Pakistan’s National Assembly are inadequate and useless, Catholic and Protestant leaders say
( [email protected] ) Nov 04, 2004 11:47 AM EST

Recent changes to the Blasphemy Law approved by Pakistan’s National Assembly are inadequate and useless, Catholic and Protestant leaders say. Although amendments adopted on Oct. 26 place limits on the abuses of the law, they do nothing to remove its shortcomings, church leaders told an Italy-based news agency.

“The changes were disappointing,” said Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha, chairperson of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, and Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the commission, as reported by AsiaNews.

Since its adoption in 1986, the Blasphemy Law of Pakistan has led to the deaths of tens of Christians accuse of defaming Islam. Under the law, which condemns all insults to the Qu’ran and the prophet Mohammed, 579 people have been charged and 30 are still waiting for the courts’ decisions. While offending the Qu’ran is punishable with life imprisonment, insulting Mohammed is considered a capital crime.

For the past twenty years, the blasphemy laws have been widely misused and caused fear and suffering in the predominantly Muslim nation, as they only require the testimony of one Muslim man to bring charges against another person for blasphemy. Although the purpose of the laws is to prevent the defamation of Islam and the prophet Mohammed, the laws have been used as a tool in disputes that have nothing to do with religion. One of the major complaints about the law is it is often misused to settle personal vendettas and arguments over property or money, particularly against the minority Christian community.

Now, under the amended law, only senior police officers will be able to investigate blasphemy cases. More importantly, AsiaNews reports, they will have to file criminal charges only after looking into allegations and not before, as was the case until now.

According to Saldanha and Jacob, similar changes had been tabled in 1992 and discarded as insufficient.

Joseph Francis of the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, who also condemned the proposed changes told AsiaNews, “Senior Police officers will never do the inquiry personally but will forward it to subordinates or staff officers and these will send the inquiry to further lower ranking officials and complications will continue.”

Francis added that in the past, existing inquiry procedures were not observed. Therefore, “how can we accept a new procedure when the existing one was not followed?” he said. “The only solution is to repeal these laws.”

Manzoor W. Batti, a Protestant and founding president of Teach Awareness through Skill and Knowledge, also condemned the law, saying “If a Muslim accuses anyone of blasphemy, no one will dare challenge his words.”

“The charge itself is a death sentence,” Batti told AsiaNews. “In this country we have many such examples.”

According to sources, the National Assembly also amended the law on honor killing and Hudood ordinances. Inspired by the Qu’ran, the laws punish behavior deemed incompatible with Islam such as adultery, gambling and the consumption of alcohol. Incompatible behavior is punishable by whipping and stoning.

The changes also include harsher verdicts for honor killings, AsiaNews reported. While the minimum sentence ranges from seven to ten years of imprisonment, the maximum sentence can include life imprisonment and even the death penalty.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which believes the amendments are inadequate, said, “Women will continue to be murdered and their killers walk away scot-free.” For the Commission, “the changes in the law do nothing to remove its shortcomings.” It agreed that the ordinances should be repealed.