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Home Amnesty International Time to take human rights seriously
Amnesty International

Excerpts from Amnesty International
Report titled “Time to take human rights seriously
June, 1997 - AI Index: ASA 33/12/97


Chapter 3

Prisoners of conscience charged with religious offences

“I was talking to the shopkeeper when someone struck me on the shoulder with a meat cleaver and then struck me again on the head. The shopkeeper helped me up, I was in a daze and I thought I was yet another victim in the city's dacoities [armed robberies]. Then my driver rushed to tell me that Bushra was also bleeding. She was unconscious and lying in a pool of blood.”

Samiya Bukhari and Bushra Taseer, two elderly women, had gone shopping in Karachi on the evening of 26 March 1996 when the tailor who had made their clothes for many years attacked them. They were rushed to hospital. Both survived but Bushra Taseer remains partially paralysed.

The tailor, Mohammad Arif, was arrested for attempted murder. He kept repeating that the women were Ahmadis and that he would go to heaven if he killed them. Six days later, Mohammad Arif's colleague, Mohammad Arshad, registered a criminal complaint against Bushra Taseer. He alleged that Mohammad Arif had warned Bushra Taseer not to wear the new clothes as the name of the prophet Mohammad was printed on the cloth and that he had become outraged at her refusal. The charge was under section 295-C of the PPC, which says that anyone found guilty of “defiling the name of the Prophet” must be punished with death. She was arrested in hospital but later released on bail as there was no evidence against her — there was no writing on the cloth. The charges, however, remain pending.

Several sections of the PPC which deal with religious offences have over the years been used to harass, intimidate and punish hundreds of people solely for the exercise of their right to freedom of religion. The victims are mostly members of Pakistan's religious minorities — Ahmadis and Christians — although some Muslims who advocate novel ideas have also been targeted.

Most of these cases are motivated not by the blasphemous actions of the accused, but by hostility towards members of minority communities, compounded by personal enmity, professional jealousy or economic rivalry. The individuals convicted of blasphemy or facing such charges are or could become prisoners of conscience, detained solely for their real or imputed religious beliefs. Since the introduction of the mandatory death penalty for blasphemy, such prisoners of conscience can and have been sentenced to death.

Ahmadis view themselves as Muslim but are considered heretical by orthodox Muslims on account of doctrinal differences. In 1974, under the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Ahmadis were declared a non-Muslim minority. Their rights to profess, practice and propagate their faith were severely curtailed during Zia-ul- Haq's Islamization drive during the 1980s. New sections (298-B and -C) of the PPC made it a criminal offence for Ahmadis to call themselves Muslim, to employ nomenclature and appellations associated with Islam, to use Muslim practices of worship and to propagate their faith. In practice, this means they can be and are imprisoned for calling their place of worship a "mosque" or for using the popular greeting “assalam-o-alaikum” The Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled in 1993 that the criminalization of much of Ahmadi religious belief and practice did not curtail their right to freedom of religion and that Muslims had a right to Muslim nomenclature, rites and rituals much as a company has a right to its brand name.

Section 295-C of the PPC, added in 1986, said that anyone defiling the name of the prophet Mohammad is to be punished with life imprisonment or death. The life imprisonment alternative was later removed, leaving the death penalty as the mandatory punishment for anyone found guilty of blasphemy.

The new vaguely formulated laws have been extensively abused to arrest and detain people, and take no account of the intention of the “offender”. Currently, over 2,000 Ahmadis have various religious charges pending against them; some 119 Ahmadis face charges of blasphemy under section 295-C. Many are implicated in several cases making it necessary for them to attend court frequently, often in different places which is both an expensive and time-consuming duty. Trials often take years to complete. At the end of 1996, all but six Ahmadis and at least two Christians charged with blasphemy were free on bail.

Bail has sometimes been denied for long periods for those charged with blasphemy. Riaz Ahmad, his son and two nephews have remained in prison since their arrest in November 1993 in Piplan, Mianwali district. They were detained on the allegation that they had “said something derogatory” and had claimed that the founder of their religion had worked wonders. Observers believe that rivalry over Riaz Ahmad's position as village headman is the real motivation for the complaint against him. The bail application of the four men was rejected by the sessions court (the lowest court) and by the provincial High Court in Lahore, and has been pending since 1994 in the Supreme Court. The trial has not yet begun. In a similar case, Anwar Masih, a Christian from Samundri in Punjab, has been in detention since February 1993 when a Muslim shopkeeper alleged that Anwar Masih had uttered insulting words against prophet Mohammad in the course of an argument over money owed.

Cases involving religious offences do not always appear to be tried impartially. Several judgments betray a distinct religious bias by the judges. Gul Masih, who was charged with blasphemy after a quarrel about a broken community water tap, was sentenced to death in November 1992 solely on the strength of the statement of the complainant whom the judge did not doubt because he was “a young man … with a beard and outlook of a true Muslim”. Arshad Javed, a Muslim man certified mentally ill by independent experts, was tried for claiming that he was Jesus Christ and sentenced to death in February 1993.

To date, six men — three Christians, one Sunni Muslim man and two Afghan Shi'a Muslims — have been sentenced to death under section 295-C. The fact that all were acquitted on appeal indicates that the convictions were based on little or no evidence.

Members of religious minorities such as the Ahmadis suffer discrimination in many forms, including denial of freedom of speech or assembly, closure of mosques, restrictions on their press, discrimination in jobs and education, forced religious conversion, social and economic boycott, and threats to their lives. The threats are not always empty words.

The widening of the scope of religious offences, the introduction of harsher punishments and the often heated public debate of these issues have contributed to an atmosphere of religious intolerance. Fanatics have sometimes believed they are entitled to take the law into their own hands — and police have all too often permitted this to happen. In April 1994 a Muslim practitioner of indigenous medicine was stoned to death by a mob in Gujranwala following a rumour that he had burned pages of the Qur'an. The mob tried to set him on fire while he was probably still alive and dragged his body through the streets. A year later, two Ahmadis were attacked by an angry group of people on the court premises in Shab Qadar, North West Frontier Province. The two men had gone to the court to provide bail for an arrested co- religionist. One of them, Riaz Khan was stoned to death; the other, his father-in-law, was seriously injured. Police stood by passively and later declared, “everything was spontaneous and we could do nothing”. At least 17 Ahmadis have been killed in deliberate targeted attacks over the past two years. In not one of these cases have the attackers been brought to justice as police have failed to investigate the incidents.

In February 1997 a dozen Christian churches and several schools in Khanewal in Punjab were burned down and some 50 people injured after a rumour was spread over mosque loudspeakers that pages of the Qur'an had been found crumpled and with names of Christians scribbled on them. A teacher present at the time reported:

“A couple of hours after our contact with the administration [to express apprehension about mobs gathering to storm the village], we saw a group of 200 people heading towards our church. They broke into the church, ransacked it, the priest's house and the school and set it on fire by throwing bombs and sprinkling petrol on carpets. The furniture was gutted and we had to flee for our lives. The police did nothing to stop the mob and protect us”.

Police are believed to have instigated the incident with the help of Islamist groups in retaliation for the suspension of several police officers disciplined after desecrating the Bible during an earlier raid.

Following national and international protests about the abuse of the blasphemy laws, particularly section 295-C, the government in 1994 said that it would introduce two amendments. Under these, a formal authorization by a judicial magistrate would be required before a complaint of blasphemy could be registered and arrests made. In addition, the false allegation of blasphemy was to be made a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment. However, protests by Islamists led the then Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, to back down in mid-1995. She announced: “we will not amend the law”.

In 1995 President Farooq Leghari assured the Christian community that magistrates had been instructed to scrutinize all cases against Christians before charges could be registered. Such administrative orders are not binding, although for almost two years the instruction seemed to have a positive effect. However, Christians have again been imprisoned in recent months on such charges. Ayub Masih, for example, has been in Sahiwal Jail since October 1996 after allegedly insulting the prophet Mohammad during a squabble with a Muslim neighbour. Local human rights activists believe that resentment over land recently allocated to Ayub Masih's family triggered the charge.

Ahmadis have never benefited from official assurances that complaints of blasphemy against them will be scrutinized before they are formally registered. In fact, in some cases, charges under section 295-C were added to other charges on the state's initiative — on occasion against explicit rulings of the superior judiciary. Dr Majoka was arrested in February 1994 under section 298-C for allegedly inviting neighbours to listen to broadcasts of the community's spiritual head. Police later added charges under section 295-C to the complaint. Despite rulings by the sessions court and the Lahore High Court that the addition of section 295-C charges was “without legal basis”, the Khushab court in October 1996 agreed with the state representative's plea to retain the additional charge.


Laws that limit or ban the right to freedom of religion contravene important international human rights standards. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights lays down:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change one's religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Amnesty International calls on the Government of Pakistan to ensure that the law against blasphemy is not abused to imprison prisoners of conscience and that no one is sentenced to death. It urges the government specifically to:

  • immediately and unconditionally release any prisoners of conscience held solely for the exercise of their right to freedom of religion;
  • drop the charges of blasphemy if based solely on enmity to the defendant because of his or her minority belief;
  • introduce legislative measures to curb the abuse of the blasphemy laws as a first step towards their abolition. Such legal changes should encompass magisterial scrutiny before formal registration of complaints and make it a criminal offence to falsely lay charges of blasphemy;
  • ensure fair trial and the physical safety of anyone charged with blasphemy while the blasphemy laws remain on the statute book;
  • end state connivance in violence against religious minorities by extending adequate protection to them and ensuring that all complaints of violence, including religiously motivated killings, are thoroughly and promptly investigated and those responsible brought to justice.
Published with permission from Angelika Pathak, Researcher, South Asia team, Amnesty Int'l.

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