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Home Amnesty International The death penalty under the blasphemy law
Amnesty International

Excerpts from Amnesty International
Report on Pakistan (ASA 33/10/96) September, 1996


5. The death penalty under the blasphemy law

During former president Zia-ul Haq's Islamization drive, several new sections relating to religious offences were added to the Pakistan Penal Code; in 1980, section 298-A was inserted which made the use of derogatory remarks in respect of persons revered in Islam an offence, punishable with up to three years' imprisonment. In 1986, this was further narrowed down, by inserting an offence specifically directed at the person of the prophet: Defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed was declared a criminal offence which under section 295-C was to be punished with death or life imprisonment. It says:

“295-C: Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet: whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

In October 1990, the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) ruled that “the penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet … is death and nothing else” and directed the Government of Pakistan to effect the necessary legal changes. (See footnote) The government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif did not file an appeal against the FSC decision; the death penalty is thus the mandatory punishment available for blasphemy. The law does not prescribe a particular manner or place in which the death penalty for blasphemy is to be carried out.

Ever since the new sections of the Pakistan Penal Code relating to religious offences against Islam, including section 295-C, were introduced in the 1980's, they have been extensively abused to harass members of the religious minorities such as Christians and Ahmadis, as well as member of the Sunni majority. Hundreds of people have been charged under these sections: In all the cases known to Amnesty International, these charges have been arbitrarily brought, founded solely on the individual's minority religious beliefs or on malicious accusations against individuals of the Muslim majority who advocate novel ideas. The available evidence indicates that charges were brought as a measure to intimidate and punish members of minority religious communities or non-conforming members of the majority community and that the hostility towards minority groups appeared in many cases compounded by personal enmity, professional envy or economic rivalry or a desire to gain political advantage.

In mid-1996, Amnesty International was aware of over 140 people charged with blasphemy under section 295-C PPC and of six people in detention on such charges. The six death sentences for blasphemy imposed so far have all been overturned on appeal and the defendants acquitted and released. In none of the cases that have come to Amnesty International's attention over the years, have the defendants been responsible for acts that could be construed as constituting blasphemy. Amnesty International has concluded that the individuals now facing charges of blasphemy, are or could become prisoners of conscience, detained solely for their real or imputed religious beliefs in violation of their right to freedom of thought, conscience or religion (see: Pakistan: Violations of human rights of Ahmadis, AI Index: ASA 33/15/91; Pakistan: Use and abuse of the blasphemy laws, AI Index: ASA 33/08/94; and Pakistan: Five Ahmadi journalists charged with blasphemy, AI Index: ASA 33/03/94).

A common feature of accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan is the manner in which they are uncritically accepted by the prosecuting authorities who themselves may face intimidation and threats should they fail to accept them. Following protests by national and international human rights organizations against abuses of the blasphemy law, the Government of Pakistan in early 1994 announced that it intended to introduce two procedural changes which would lessen the possibility of abuse of section 295-C; under these a formal authorization by a judicial magistrate would be required before a complaint of blasphemy could be registered and any arrests be affected. Besides, the false allegation of blasphemy would itself be made a criminal offence to be punished with up to seven years' imprisonment.

The Pakistan Law Commission, presided over by the Chief Justice of Pakistan and attended by the minister for law, the chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology and the chief justices of the four provincial high courts, decided in February 1994 to send a draft of the blasphemy amendment bill to the Council of Islamic Ideology for further scrutiny. According to reports, the Pakistan Law Commission expressed concern at the abuse of authority by the police when dealing with blasphemy cases and the misuse of the law for ulterior purposes by various political and sectarian organizations. It also noted with concern the negative international reaction to the reported abuse of the blasphemy law in Pakistan. Maulana Kausur Niazi, Chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology, said in a press conference that “the law needs modification to ensure that it is not abused by unscrupulous elements for their selfish ends … The procedure for police registration of a case, the judicial level at which it should be considered and the suitable criteria for admission of witnesses have to be looked at thoroughly” (Agence France Presse, 18 February 1994).

Amidst widespread strikes and protests in late May 1995 against any changes to the blasphemy law, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on 28 May 1995 declared that her government only envisaged procural changes and added: “we will not amend the law”. The then federal law minister, Iqbal Haider, declared in May 1994 that the blasphemy law would not be repealed as the government believed that there should be a deterrent to defiling the name of the prophet; he also justified its retention by pointing to legal provisions in the United Kingdom, the United States and other countries which he described as “similar”. The bill to bring about the envisaged procedural changes has not so far been placed before either house of parliament.

Amnesty International has been told by government officials that administrative measures have been taken to prevent abuse of the blasphemy law contained in section 295-C; indeed during 1995, no new complaints of blasphemy were reported to have been registered against Christians. Amnesty International has been informed of several instances in which administrative officers have effectively mediated when complainants intended to lay charges against Christians alleged to have committed blasphemy. However, similar protective measures do not appear to have been extended to members of the Ahmadiyya community. Amnesty International remains concerned that administrative directives are not legally binding and do not alter the legal position - a vague law which permits, even invites, abuse and the harassment and intimidation of minorities in Pakistan.

Ahmadis charged with blasphemy often find it very difficult to obtain bail. Riaz Ahmed Chowdhury, his son and two nephews from Piplan, Mianwali district in Punjab province, are alleged to have claimed that the founder of their religion had worked miracles. This was deemed to be an offence under section 295-C PPC and the four men were arrested in November 1993. Observers believe that Riaz' position as village headman in Piplan is at issue and that people contesting the post are behind the charge. The four men's bail application was rejected by a sessions court in Mianwali, then in June 1994 by the Lahore High Court and has since then been pending in the Supreme Court. The four men are still in prison in Mianwali, the trial has not begun yet.

In January 1996, Senator Iqbal Haider told Amnesty International in London that no new charges of blasphemy had been filed in the previous year; Amnesty International is aware of at least three new cases in which eight people were charged with blasphemy under section 295-C in Sindh alone during 1995.

On 16 November 1995, Zahoor Hussain Abro and Noor Hussain Abro, two Ahmadis in Warrah, district Larkana, Sindh province, were charged under section 259-C besides other sections of the PPC for being found in possession of a motorbike with a sticker bearing a Qur'anic verse. Police did not immediately register the complaint but when the complainant, the imam of the local mosque filed a petition in the High Court to have his complaint registered, police complied. The two men, arrested on 18 November 1995, were denied bail by the sessions court and were granted bail by the Sindh High Court in early 1996… (check date). The men are the brother and uncle of Anwar Hussain Abro, an Ahmadi who was murdered in Anwarabad, Larkana district, in December 1994 by religious militants who abducted him from his house, tried to force him to abuse the head of the Ahmadiyya community and finally shot him dead.

On October 1995, five Ahmadis were charged inter alia under section 295-C for having printed Islamic terms of greeting on a banner in Faiz Ganj, district Khairpur, inviting people to a gathering; two accused were arrested and remained in detention for two months until bail was granted by the high court; the three other accused obtained pre-arrest bail.

Two elderly Ahmadi women were in March 1996 injured by a religious fanatic and subsequently charged with blasphemy to cover up the attack upon them. Bushra Siddiqa Tasir and Samia Bokhari, both in their sixties, on 26 March 1996 were attacked by a tailor in his shop in Karachi where they were collecting some clothes; both women were injured with a knife and were hospitalised. The attacker who is a member of a Sunni religious organization later stated that the cloth which the women had Islamic words printed on it and that this outraged him. Later he declared that he had received orders in a dream to attack the women. Still later he claimed that the women had tried to teach him Ahmadiyyat. The tailor has not been arrested; instead Bushra Siddiqua Tasir was charged with blasphemy under section 295-C PPC. It appears that police did not register a complaint against the tailor as he was locally seen to defend Islam. Bushra Siddiqua Tasir was given bail but the charges against her are pending.

So far, six men, including a boy who was only 12 at the time of the alleged offence, have been sentenced to death for blasphemy. All were acquitted on appeal. Though nobody has so far been judicially executed after having been found guilty of blasphemy, at least four Christians charged with blasphemy, Tahir Iqbal, Naimat Ahmer, Bantu Masih and Manzoor Masih, have so far died, one in suspicious circumstances in jail and three at the hands of armed attackers. At least 16 Ahmadis have reportedly been killed by religious fanatics between February 1994 and May 1996. The changes in legislation relating to religious offences appear to have contributed to an atmosphere of religious intolerance in which fanatics sometimes consider themselves entitled to take the law into their own hands and to carry our the death penalty without judicial process.

Published with permission from Angelika Pathak, Researcher, South Asia team, Amnesty Int'l.
Footnote  Decisions of the FSC are under article 203-D of the constitution binding on the government which may, however, appeal against such decisions to the Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court whose decision is final. Back to Article

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