LAHORE, 2 December (IRIN) - A court in Pakistan on Tuesday handed down a life sentence and a fine of 10,000 rupees (US $167 dollars) to a man from the minority Ahmediya community for remarks deemed blasphemous to Islam. The man, Iqbal Ahmad, can appeal against the sentence to the high court within 30 days.
Ahmad was arrested in March on a charge of blasphemy in the village of Samundari, some 250 km south of the capital, Islamabad, following a complaint by a village prayer leader, Zulfiqar. He had accused Ahmad of arguing with him about religion at a police station. “During the argument Iqbal had blasphemed against Islam’s prophet Muhammad,” the clergyman said in the police complaint.
Human rights groups have been highlighting the persecution suffered by the Ahmediyas in Pakistan since a 1974 constitutional amendment declared the Muslim sect to be heretical, even though Ahmediyas regard themselves as part of the Islamic faith.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) in a report on “Building Judicial Independence in Pakistan” last month had recommended donor agencies to promote meaningful in-service judicial training on the treatment in court of religious minorities, in particular Ahmediyas and Christians.
Although Pakistan placed limits on the abuse of the blasphemy law in October this year, the fact remains that “with words or writings, gestures or visible representations, direct or indirect insinuations, he who insults the holy name of the Prophet,” faces the death penalty.
The disposition, which allows the imprisonment of the accused based on simple oral statements made by any citizen, favours its use as a means of personal vengeance. Muslim militants have in the past manipulated the law to persecute Christians or anyone who does not agree with them.
Now, under the amended law, to avoid abuses, only senior police officers will be able to investigate blasphemy cases. More importantly, they will have to file criminal charges only after looking into allegations and not before, as was the case until now.
The Federal Minister of Religious Affairs, Ejaz ul Haq, admitted last summer that there had been many recent abuses of the law. From 1927 to 1986, there were just seven cases of blasphemy registered, while from 1986 to the present, 4,000 have been reported.
The National Commission for Justice and Peace termed the changes superficial and misconstrued because they postpone the much-debated repeal of the blasphemy laws.
Rashid Javed, a representative of Ahmadis’ organisation Jamaat-e-Ahmadiyya, told IRIN Ahmad had converted to Ahmadism five years ago against his family’s wished.
Their only political organisation, the Jamaat Ahmadiyya, has been marginalised in national politics, largely through the institution of separate electorates. Although Ahmediyas have a strong collective identity and often live in communities together, that identity has not resulted in an equally strong political presence, most likely due to repression and violence. Ahmediyas have filed complaints to local police and government officials when attacked by other communal groups. However, those responsible are rarely brought to justice and many times the victims from the minority group are arrested under the anti-blasphemy laws.
“The blasphemy charge is false and Ahmad is being victimised. He had to leave his village and was living in a small town near Bahwalnagar (in Pakistan’s south). Only days after his return to his village he was booked for blasphemy. Now he has been convicted and sentenced,” he said.
This is third such sentence this year in Faisalabad, the nearest main town to the village. In the previous two cases those convicted were Christians.
The population of Ahmediyas, also known as Qadyanis in Pakistan, is 4.73 million (3.5 percent of the population). They are followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmed (1839-1908) and have separated from the main body of Islam due to major differences in their beliefs. By accepting Ahmed as a prophet, the group reject the finality of the prophecy of Mohammed.
The Ahmediyas, who are relatively well-educated as a group, have at times been well represented in both the pre- and post-independence administrations in Pakistan and have occupied many high posts. However, fundamentalist Islamic groups (both Sunni and Shiite) have agitated against them consistently and targeted them for violence. Since 1974, when Ahmediyas were declared non-Muslims, the community may only vote for one Ahmad representative to the national legislature. As a result, Ahmediyas have been virtually disenfranchised.