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December 04, 2010
Is the demand to change Pakistan’s blasphemy laws an American conspiracy as being thought by some people in the country? Though there is no evidence to respond to this question in the affirmative, many believe it to be the case. Thus, Sherry Rehman’s proposed bill to amend blasphemy laws is being termed a conspiracy. This line of thinking is part of the same stream which is averse to reason.
If the demand to change the law is really a conspiracy, then senior advocate of the Supreme Court Muhammad Ismail Qureshi, the chief architect of the most stringent blasphemy law i.e. Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), is also part of the conspiracy. Because on pages 336-7 of the fourth edition (2010) of his book titled Namoos-i-Rasool (SAS) aur Qanoon-i-Tauhin-i-Risalat, he proposes an amendment to Section 295-C to make it less stringent.
He acknowledges that the present Section 295-C of the PPC is not in accordance with the Holy Quran and Sunnah and is indiscriminate as regards intentional and unintentional (bil irada and bila irada) offences of blasphemy in respect of the Holy Prophet (pbuh). He proposes to amend the provision by dividing it into two parts, while retaining the ‘death sentence’ for cases of intentional and wilful use of derogatory remark in respect of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) and by providing a ‘fine’ as punishment in cases of unintentional remarks.
While acknowledging parliament’s right to amend the law, Mr Qureshi suggests that the matter of blasphemy laws is not a closed chapter: “Another aspect that the legislature needs to look into is that for the imposition of Hudood punishments, evidence must fulfil the test of Tazkiyah-tul-Shahood without which Hadd may not be imposed, and a lesser punishment by way of Tazir may only be awarded in such cases. Similarly, parliament may change the law to provide for a due lesser punishment by way of Tazir for blasphemy in respect of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) in cases where conditions for the imposition of Hadd are not met.” (Translated by the writer)
Qureshi’s argument for a death sentence, based on some Islamic sources, is highly contentious. For instance, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, finding support from the Holy Quran, argues that “…the death sentence can only be given to a person who has killed someone or to someone who is guilty of spreading disorder in a society. No other person can be punished by death.” (The Penal Shariah of Islam, page 39)
Back in 1986, Qureshi drafted Section 295-C providing the death sentence as the only punishment for blasphemy and got it tabled in the National Assembly in 1986 through MNA Apa Nisar Fatima of the Jamaat-i-Islami. The law was passed by parliament in an amended form as it is present in the statute. In 1990, a Federal Shariat Court decision on a petition by Ismail Qureshi rendered the alternative punishment of life imprisonment inapplicable. Clearly, the author of the law has reconsidered his stance since then.
Evidence suggests that stringent religious laws have only encouraged and complimented increasing radicalism and provided reasons for mob justice and abuse of laws for personal motives. In most cases, this has resulted in a grave miscarriage of justice at the hands of the courts. A recent confirmation of death sentence in a blasphemy case by the Lahore High Court is an example (Criminal Appeal No. 1356/2002) in which the court has based its judgment on indirect, hearsay evidence and an extra-judicial confession.
Efforts to change blasphemy laws cannot be termed a conspiracy. Indeed, if there is a conspiracy of scandalous proportions it is the ongoing propaganda and threat of violence to thwart the proposed amendments to blasphemy laws. Sherry Rehman’s proposed amendment bill, while doing away with the death sentence, addresses some of the concerns raised by civil society including lawyers and human rights defenders. Parliament must not lose this opportunity to reconsider the laws that have caused so much insecurity especially amongst religious minorities.
Published in The Express Tribune December 4th, 2010.