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Examine material basis and motives behind blasphemy laws: WAF tells media

Examine material basis and motives behind blasphemy laws: WAF tells media

By Urooj Zia (Pakistan Today; 09 January 2010)

KARACHI: Media personnel, as part of their social responsibility, need to examine and educate the public about the material basis and the motives behind legislation such as the Blasphemy Laws, as well as the actions of people such as Mumtaz Qadri, members of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) said on Saturday at a meeting organised at the Aurat Foundation office.

WAF had been re-examining the blasphemy laws over the summer. “We had spoken to lawyers and they had said that while these laws could be challenged legally and we had a strong case, the situation in the country meant that it wasn’t very feasible to take it to court without formulating public opinion first,” Kauser Khan said. “But then the earthquake happened, and rescue and relief efforts took priority.”

WAF members decided to take this matter up again given all the brouhaha over the Aasia Noreen case, and the subsequent assassination of Salmaan Taseer and threats to Sherry Rehman’s life. “We have decided that instead of preaching to the choir or trying to reason with extremists, we are going to speak to fence-sitters, and the media can play a huge role in this regard,” Khan said. “The ball is in the media’s court; tell us how we can help. We don’t intend to pass judgement on anyone; our aim is to work together.”

A presentation on the issue, based on studies by Mansoor Reza and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, as well other stakeholders, was then played to demonstrate the history of the blasphemy laws, how they morphed between 1860 to 1986 from laws “meant to protect the dignity of all religions to laws driven by an intent to kill”; as well as statistics regarding blasphemy cases and victims; and the motivations behind lodging these cases.

The presentation and the subsequent screening of a documentary on the subject showed that there had been o history of any law remotely related to blasphemy during any Muslim rule, including the Mughal Era in the sub-continent. They were initially promulgated by the British and came into existence in 1860 as Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code as a law to protect symbols from all religions. Perpetrators were to be punished with up to two years in prison. Soon, Section 295-A was added, and the laws went from protecting ‘symbols’ to ‘feelings’. The Indian Penal Code was incorporated into the Pakistan Penal Code in 1947, but no changes were made to blasphemy-related legislation until 1980, when section 298-A was added, making derogatory remarks against Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh), his wives, his family, the Khulafa and the Sahaba punishable with up to three years in prison. In 1982, Section 295-B was added, making the act of defiling the names of the Prophet (Pbuh), his wives, family or companions, or the Holy Qur’an punishable with up to three years of imprisonment. In 1986, Section 295-C made defiling the name of the Prophet (Pbuh) punishable with either life imprisonment or death. In 1990, under Nawaz Sharif, the Federal Shariat Court removed life imprisonment, making the death sentence mandatory for those convicted for blasphemy.

Between 1927 and 1984, nine cases were lodged for blasphemy. This number jumped to 361, with 761 accused, between 1986 and 2007, with less than four percent of the accused being women. Most of these cases (70) were lodged in seven districts of Punjab. While in none of the 104 blasphemy cases referred to high courts have the accused been given the death penalty yet, 23 accused have been murdered to date by vigilantes, and one district magistrate was murdered for acquitting a person who was falsely accused. Seventy seven percent of the total were lodged in Punjab, 15 percent in Sindh, five percent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 2.2 percent in the capital and Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and 0.8 percent in Balochistan. Going by numbers, Muslims (including Ahmadis) have been the most victimised in these cases; while going by percentage representation, the highest number of victims are either Christians or Hindus. The Sipah-e-Sahaba have been at the forefront of lodging such cases, particularly during times when the government conducts crackdowns against their cadres.

As such, WAF members said, it is the responsibility of media personnel to educate people about these facts regarding these laws and thus formulate public opinion. “These laws are not divine. They are man-made, and were promulgated by a dictator to appease his henchmen,” they said. “We had faced similar resistance when we used to speak against the Hudood Laws, which were also promulgated by the same dictator. Eventually, however, the media took it upon itself to educate people regarding the invalidity of the Hudood Laws, and they were successfully amended. The same needs to be done for the Blasphemy Laws as well before more people fall victim to extremists and are murdered.”

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