ISLAMABAD: A strong voice for a reform of the controversial blasphemy law was raised in the National Assembly on Tuesday by lawmakers of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf during a debate on Sunday’s massacre of more than 81 Christians in a suicide bombing at a Peshawar church.
This was the first public opposition from a right-wing party to the Zia-era law, which prescribes the death penalty for blasphemy and which has often been allegedly misused against members of the Christian community, while the previously ruling PPP paid with the lives of a provincial governor and a federal minister more than two years ago for demanding a similar reform.
PTI president Makhdoom Javed Hashmi ignited the issue anew in brief remarks he made while interrupting the second day of the debate on the Peshawar bombing after making his main speech much earlier, and his proposal for safeguards against the misuse of the law enforced in the 1980s by then military ruler Gen Ziaul Haq was backed by three other members of his party.
“This blasphemy law was wrong,” the veteran parliamentarian said, about provisions made in the country’s criminal law that he also called “contrary to Islam”, and said he had voted against it in violation of his then Pakistan Muslim League Party’s discipline when it was brought to the house for approval.
But he said there was “still an opportunity” to rectify the situation and added: “We should do something about it.”
The suggestion was backed PTI members Shireen Mazari, Arif Alvi and Lal Chand Mali in their speeches in the debate, but was opposed by a member of PTI-allied Jamaat-i-Islami, Sahibzada Mohammad Yaqub, who said the existing blasphemy law had “many advantages” for guard against insulting any prophet and asked Mr Hashmi to bring a new bill to the house or approach the Council of Islamic Ideology for advice if he were serious about his proposal.
Punjab governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by a bodyguard in Islamabad in January 2011 and minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was shot dead by unidentified gunmen, also in Islamabad, in March after they had pleaded for changes in the blasphemy law to provide for safeguards against its misuse.
Later a private bill tabled by PPP’s former National Assembly member Sherry Rehman to provide for similar safeguards was shelved after her party said it did not intend to make any changes in the blasphemy law.
In her speech in the house on Tuesday, Shireen Mazari pleaded for rectifying “if there were any lacunas in the law”, and also called for correcting the existing educational curriculum to save the youth from what she called rampant intolerance and bigotry.
Arif Alvi said a law that allowed for injustice and implicating innocent people should be made to be in accordance with justice.
Lal Chand called for the implementation of a call by former president Asif Ali Zardari, in his address to a June 10 joint sitting of parliament when he was still in office, to stop misuse of the blasphemy law and demanded that the present government constitute a parliamentary committee to suggest solutions to the problem of non-Muslims.
Earlier, Christian member Asiya Nasir of the government-allied JUI-F made the most sentimental speech of the day and received repeated applause from both sides of the aisle for her remarks like calling on all Pakistanis to stand united against the “dragon of terrorism out to swallow the whole of Pakistan” and that “we will be equal partners and will make equal sacrifices”.
In another forceful speech, Ports and Shipping Minister Kamran Michael said patriotism, rather than religion, should be the yardstick for a majority and minority and called for rooting out terrorism if the dialogue process did not succeed.
Azra Fazal Pechuho, a senior PPP member, called for taking “decisive decisions” on “whether these terrorists are going to dictate us” as she referred to reported Taliban preconditions for a dialogue with the government and said those killing innocent people were not Islamists but “monsters and savages”.