The impact of blasphemy laws on human rights

The whole world is deeply shocked and concerned over Asia Bibi’s death sentence for blasphemy, issued by a local court in Pakistan. Concerned citizens and human rights activists say the case of Asia Bibi – the first woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy – highlights the need for urgent repeal of laws that are routinely used to persecute minorities and settle grudges.

Background and History:

The blasphemy laws have been described by experts as a form of legalized discrimination against minority religious groups. Those affected include individuals seen to be questioning the state-sanctioned religious doctrine, heterodox Islamic sects, Christians, and followers of traditional indigenous beliefs. The demographic breakdown of blasphemy defendants in Pakistan represents a prime example of selective application. Although Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus make up less than 3 percent of the country’s population, they have accounted for about half of the blasphemy defendants in Pakistan over the past two decades, according to some estimates.

The blasphemy law was enacted by the British to protect the religious sentiments of the Muslim minorities in the subcontinent against the Hindu majority. After the creation of Pakistan as the Muslims were no more a minority, the law should have been abolished. But it was made more stringent: Section 295-A was enacted in 1927 (Pakistan Penal Code). In 1980, Section 298-A was inserted. In 1982, Section 295-B was introduced. In 1986, Section 295-C was legislated. In 1991, life imprisonment was replaced with the mandatory death penalty in the Section 295-C.

When the blasphemy laws were not harsh and the Muslims were tolerant towards the non-Muslim minorities, the latter remained mindful of the religious feelings of the former. As the majority grew intolerant towards the minorities and the capital punishment was incorporated in the law, the cases of blasphemy started occurring more frequently. From 1948-1979, 11 cases of blasphemy were registered. Only three were reported from 1979-1986. Forty-four cases were filed from 1987-1999. In 2000, 52 cases were registered – 43 against the Muslims and nine against the Non-Muslims.

After Jinnah’s death, the ruling elite embraced the Machiavellian politics of the colonial rulers and divided the nation on religious, sectarian and linguistic bases. The blasphemy law is an integral part of this baleful politics that has made Pakistan a deeply divided society. History is full of incidents that remind us of the great love, amity, unity, and affinity between the Muslims and the non-Muslims.

Every other day we hear reports of someone being charged of blasphemy and the judges on duty award death sentence to such people when the charges are proven. In Pakistan the blasphemy law has often been used for settling personal scores. President General Musharraf had announced amendment to this law but later he had to back out. The higher court have not endorsed death sentence in any blasphemy case so far but the extremists have been misusing this law to harass the minorities. Even if the allegations prove false the person leveling such charges is not punished. Whenever such an incident takes place it harms Pakistan’s image in general. Religious fanaticism is very common in Pakistan and because of absence of a political process people tend to use force and gun for settling the issues.

General Zia regime and his legacy headed by Pakistan Muslim League created an environment in which murder in the name of Islam became a legitimate act. A number of innocent people have been charged with blasphemy and killed in the name of Islam. It is a fact that no sensible and sane person can ever think of doing any such thing. Personal enmities can clearly be seen behind the blasphemy cases. We find “personal enmities”, “fictitious stories” and “planning” behind the massacre in Shantinagar,Gojra,Sambrial and Bahmniwal. The gory drama of murder and arson staged in Shantinagar is still live in the memories of the local people. In Gojra and Shantinagar, houses of Christians were set on fire, churches were demolished, hostels for boys and girls were destroyed and thousands of copies of the Holy Bible were burnt right in the presence of the police. In Gojra innocent Women Children’s and even animals burnt alive. People have been killed and stoned to death in our country using the section of law 295 C. How many houses have been destroyed to get a house in the heavens?

The blasphemy laws were legislated and subsequently made stricter to ensure protection to the minorities. But their blatant abuse have shown that even the Muslims were becoming victim of these laws. The most recent example is provided by Gojra Indicant, gory murder of young Christian boy Danish Robart in Sialkot jail -here I also want to mention Yusuf Kizab murder in the Kot Lakhpat Jail by an activist of the banned Sipahe-i-Sahaba. Yusuf had been sentenced to death sentence under the blasphemy laws. The worst example was the suicide of Father John Joseph on May 6, 1998. Dr Joseph, the Bishop of Faisalabad, committed suicide in front of the Sessions Court, Sahiwal to protest against the death sentence of a Christian Ayub Masih, pronounced by the court under the blasphemy law.

According to the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), in 2009 112 cases were registered under the blasphemy laws. Of the 112 persons, 57 were identified as Ahmadis, 47 Muslims, and eight Christians. A total of 1,032 persons have been charged under the blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2009.

Majority routinely used blasphemy laws to harass religious minorities and vulnerable Muslims and to settle personal scores or business rivalries. State’s authorities detained and convicted individuals on spurious charges. Judges and magistrates, seeking to avoid confrontation with or violence from extremists, often continued trials indefinitely.



Policing Belief: The Impact of Blasphemy Laws on Human Rights examines the human rights implications of domestic blasphemy and religious insult laws using the case studies of seven countries—Algeria, Egypt, Greece, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Poland—where such laws exist both on paper and in practice. Without exception, blasphemy laws violate the fundamentalfreedom of expression, as they are by definition intended to protect religious institutions and religious doctrine– i.e., abstract ideas and concepts – from insult or offence. At their most benign, such laws lead to self-censorship. In Greece and Poland, two of the more democratic countries examined in the study, charges brought against high-profile artists, curators and writers serve as a warning to others that certain topics are off limits. At their worst, in countries such as Pakistan and Malaysia, such laws lead to overt governmental censorship and individuals are both prosecuted and subject to severe criminal penalties including lengthy jail sentences. The impact of blasphemy laws on human rights; Individuals have fabricated charges of blasphemy against others in their communities to settle petty disputes and Religious extremists have exploited blasphemy laws to justify attacks on religious minorities, thereby fostering an environment of intolerance where discrimination is effectively condoned by the state.

The situation in Pakistan is similar except, of course, it is insulting majority’s religion that brings down the wrath of law. And the punishments can be much harsher, including death — if not at the hands of the authorities then at the hands of Islamic extremists. In Pakistan, there are abundant examples of the use of blasphemy laws to crack down on religious minorities that are deemed “deviant” or “heretical” offshoots of Islam.

Human Rights campaigners have long criticized the country’s blasphemy laws for being unduly harsh, arguing that they are regularly exploited by extremists to target and discriminate against minority groups, and misused by others to settle petty disputes or exact personal vengeance.

The blasphemy laws can be found in the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), section XV, Articles 295–298. They address a number of offenses, including defiling a place of worship, damaging the Holly Quran, and what amounts to apostasy. Perpetrators face possible fines, short-term or life imprisonment, and even the death penalty; while several individuals have been sentenced to death for blasphemy, no one has yet been executed for the crime. The majority of cases of blasphemy filed in Pakistan fall under Articles 295 or 298 of the PPC. These are the most stringent provisions in section XV, and the least compatible with international legal standards.
According to data compiled by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and cited by the u.s. state Department, a total of 695 people were accused of blasphemy in Pakistan between 1986 and April 2006. Of those, 362 were Muslims, 239 were Ahmadis, 86 were Christians, and 10 were Hindus.3 The Pakistani daily newspaper Dawn has reported that some 5,000 cases were registered between 1984 to 2004, and 964 people were charged with blasphemy.

The Becket Fund for Religious liberty has described how blasphemy laws force “the state to determine which religious
viewpoints may be expressed, thus putting states in the business of judging the truth claims of religions.”

Though the PPC had always featured provisions addressing offenses to religion, the Islam-specific articles were adopted only in 1982. And the punishments for blasphemy and other religious offenses were amended during the Zia administration to include the possibility of life imprisonment and the death penalty. Most of these changes were made by presidential decree. The drift away from pluralism in Pakistan has had severe consequences for minorities and religious freedom in general. It has created an atmosphere that encourages intolerance and violence, and the increased influence of religious extremists in the political system has compromised the ability of lower-level judges, police, and government officials to uphold pluralistic values. As one commentator pointed out, “It is…the responsibility of the elected politicians to provide the law and order without which no judiciary can work. Today, for instance, a judge in the districts dare not release the victims of blasphemy for fear of being harmed by violent mullahs. The influence of religious extremists has also prevented both elected and unelected governments from working to amend or repeal harmful laws in any substantive way. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and former military ruler Pervez Musharraf both expressed their commitment to amending the religious laws, but backtracked in the face of demonstrations by extremists and pressure from Muslim clerics. Under Musharraf, who ruled from 1999 to 2008, a new amendment required police to investigate blasphemy allegations before making an arrest, but this rule is rarely observed in practice…

The blasphemy laws in Section XV of the PPC are quite expansive. In addition to prohibiting expression that is intended to wound “religious feelings,” and deliberate or malicious acts intended to “outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs,” the blasphemy laws specifically prohibit defiling the Quran and insulting the prophet Muhammad or any of his wives, family, or companions. The “misuse of epithets, descriptions, and titles, etc.” that are reserved for “holy personages or places” is also prohibited. These laws were added to the PPC between 1980 and 1986, with the most stringent amendment being adopted in 1986. Article 295(C) made it an offense punishable by life imprisonment or death to use any derogatory language about the prophet Muhammad. In 1991, the Federal Shari’a Court ruled that the punishment for this offense should be harsher, and Article 295(C) was amended to make the death penalty mandatory for individuals convicted of making derogatory remarks about the prophet Muhammad[PBUH].

Incompatibility with International Law:

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are incompatible with international human rights standards not only because they impose undue restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and other human rights, but also because they are discriminatory in their effect. Moreover, they lack the necessary safeguards against abuse, providing no clear definition of what constitutes blasphemy, weak evidentiary standards for convictions in lower courts, and no mens rea (criminal intent) requirement. This makes it possible for the laws to be exploited to persecute minorities or exact revenge in personal disputes. The blasphemy laws have also been
invoked to instigate and justify sectarian or communal conflict, with allegations of blasphemy often serving as the trigger for mob violence that has in some cases been implicitly, if not explicitly, condoned by police and government officials.

Pakistan formally ratified the ICCPR in June 2010, pledging its commitment to the treaty’s protections. Many of the rights violated by Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are also enshrined in the universal Declaration of Human Rights, and are nominally protected by the Pakistani constitution and other domestic legislation.

Lack of Clarity:

Despite their harsh penalties, the blasphemy laws provide no clear guidance on what constitutes a violation. This determination is left to police and judicial officials to make, often relying on their own personal beliefs and interpretations of Islam. As one commentator has argued, “interpreting what falls under Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws is essentially a theological question and, since there is no black-letter definition of the crime in the Holly Quran or other authoritative Islamic sources, it is one that remains unsettled.” The vagueness of the laws lend to their
utility for settling personal vendettas and targeting religious minorities at will.
In addition, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws fail to consistently distinguish between malicious, deliberate acts of blasphemy and unintended ones—a distinction nor-mally provided for in criminal law. while Articles 295 and 295(A) specify the criminalization of “deliberate and malicious” acts, or acts intended “to insult the religion of any class,” the other articles in section XV of the PPC do not include any such language.

The effects of this shortcoming in the law are apparent in the case of Anwar
Kenneth, a Pakistani Christian who was arrested and charged with blasphemy in 2001 for distributing a Christian pamphlet and declaring that Prophet Muhammad(PBUH) was a false prophet, one of the most serious forms of blasphemy in Pakistan. Kenneth also claimed he was a reincarnation of Jesus Christ, and that he had received revelations from god.According to a number of sources close to the case, he
suffered from severe psychiatric problems. His lawyer, saadia Khalid, reportedly requested an exam to determine whether he was mentally fit to stand trial, but the request was denied. The judge argued that Kenneth’s mental status was irrelevant as he had already admitted to declaring that Muhammad was a false prophet. Khalid reportedly insisted that the allegedly blasphemous statements were not “the hateful sacrilege of an infidel, but the demented ravings of a sick man.”30 nevertheless, in July 2002 Kenneth was sentenced to death. Authoritative interpreta-
tions of international law since 1999 have stipulated that the death penalty should not be applicable to persons suffering from mental retardation, mental disorder, or limited mental competence.

Disproportionate Penalties

The penalties for violating Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are excessively severe, giving rise to a range of possible human rights violations. As noted above, Pakistan’s Federal shariat Court ruled in 1991 that the punishment for blaspheming against the prophet Muhammad is “death and nothing else.” Many defendants have been sentenced to death on blasphemy charges, and although none have yet been executed for this crime, several remain on death row.
The death penalty has not been banned by international law, but the united nations has set important and necessary limitations on its application, reserving it only for “the most serious crimes.” The un Human Rights Council has routinely interpreted “the most serious crimes” to mean those offenses that result in loss of life. The UN Human Rights Committee’s general Comment 6 similarly states that the committee “is of the opinion that the expression ‘most serious crimes’ must be read restrictively to mean that the death penalty should be a quite exceptional measure.”The un special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions has found that under no circumstances and for no offense is a mandatory death penalty ever compatible with international human rights law. In the same study, the special rapporteur cited instances in which the Human Rights Council has articulated its concern that crimes carrying the death penalty are “excessively vague,” “loosely defined,” and “couched in terms so broad that the imposition of the death penalty may be subject to essentially  subjective criteria.” Article 295(C) of the PPC suffers from all of these short
comings. And as the former special rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief has stated, “applying the death penalty for blasphemy appears disproportionate and even unacceptable.”

Freedom from Arbitrary Arrest and Detention:

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and their implementation in practice lead to rou
tine violations of the right not to be held in extended arbitrary detention, as provided for in Article 9 of the universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR.

Despite the 2004 amendments requiring a police investigation prior to an arrest, individuals accused of blasphemy are routinely arrested and detained without any preliminary inquiry. Furthermore, the lower courts issue convictions based on minimal evidence, often in the context of intimidation and threats by religious extremists. This has led to accused blasphemers spending years in jail before higher courts overturn their convictions and clear them of all charges.

According to one commentator, it takes approximately eight years for a convicted defendant to be exonerated by the supreme Court.

Freedom from Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment &
Right to Life and Security of the Person Pakistan’s human rights record is marred by numerous reported incidents of abuse that amount to violations of the prohibition on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

According to Human Rights watch,

“torture by Pakistan’s police and the military’s intelligence services continues to be routine.”

Individuals accused of blasphemy are not exempt from this pattern, and some have alleged that they were tortured or mistreated in detention, either by fellow inmates or by police and prison guards. security forces have also allegedly stood by while extremist vigilantes took blasphemy accusations into their own hands.
The Daily Dawn has reported that 32 people accused of blasphemy were the victims of extrajudicial killings between 1984 and 2004.

In another incident, Hindu factory worker Jagdish Kumar was beaten to death in April 2008 by coworkers who alleged that he had made blasphemous remarks about the prophet Muhammad[PBUH]. Police were summoned but did little to intervene or protect Kumar. The
three leaders of the attack were arrested—not for murder, but for failing to report a case of blasphemy. Some policemen were eventually suspended for their lack of action in the incident.
In July 2010, two Christian brothers accused of blasphemy were shot and killed as they were leaving a hearing at a Faisalabad courthouse. They were accused of writing a pamphlet that was critical of the prophet Muhammad[PBUH], but church supporters, government officials, and the Pakistan Minorities Democratic Foundation said it appeared that the men had been set up. Their deaths sparked violent clashes between Muslims and Christians in their community.

Detained blasphemy suspects face other forms of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. several have reported being held in solitary confinement, allegedly for their own safety.

younus shaikh has written about his experience as a
death-row inmate convicted of blasphemy: “I was held in solitary confinement, in a very small death cell in the Central Jail, Rawalpindi, a dark and dirty death cell…. I remained constantly under threat of murder by Islamic inmates in jail for murder and gang rape, and by some religiously-minded prison wardens.”

Parvez Masih said he was held in a six foot by four foot cell that reached temperatures of over 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
The prolonged detention of individuals accused of blasphemy coupled with the threat of being sentenced to death, or with an actual sentence of death, may also amount to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. In soering v. uK, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that extraditing an individual to the united states, where he would most likely be sentenced to death, would amount to a breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights because of the lengthy and complex postsentencing procedures involved. The court stated that as a result, “the condemned prisoner has to endure for many years the conditions on death row and the anguish and mounting tension of living in the ever-present shadow of death.” As described above, individuals facing death sentences in Pakistan for blaspheming the prophet Muhammad[PBUH] have been detained for several years during the trial and appeals process.


Pakistan’s blasphemy laws foster an environment of intolerance and impunity, and lead to violations of a broad range of human rights, including the obvious rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion, as well as freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention; the right to due process and a fair trial; freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; and the right to life and security of the person. The country is unique in the severity of abuses arising from the application of its blasphemy laws, and in the frequency with which the laws are invoked to prosecute individuals and justify vigilantism. The overall effect is a serious erosion of the rule of law itself, with police and courts seemingly at the mercy of Islamist extremists and other extralegal forces. Basic injustices are meted out not just to religious minorities and Muslims with dissenting views on Islam, but also to ordinary people whose personal disputes, opinions, or weaknesses make them ready fodder for the broader conflicts that trouble Pakistani society.



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