Last week, a 65-year-old British man of Pakistani origin, Mohammad Asghar, who is said have a history of mental illness, was sentenced to death for blasphemy by a court in Rawalpindi.
He had been arrested in 2010 after writing letters to several individuals in which he claimed to be a prophet.
An accusation of blasphemy — a term loosely applied to several offences that fall under Section 295 titled “Of offences relating to religion” in the Pakistan Penal Code — is fraught with risk at various levels; for the accused himself, his family, his lawyers, even the judge who grants him relief whether in the form of bail or acquittal.
“This is the only criminal offence – except perhaps treason – which when levelled, instantly stigmatises the accused and invites danger of violence,” says lawyer Faisal Siddiqi.
“That’s why it’s initiated in the first place; such an accusation makes it easy to mobilise people against the individual.”
In 2012, there were at least two cases in which mobs were instigated by exhortations of vigilante justice, over mosque loudspeakers in one instance, to attack police stations where two accused were present, and beat them to death.
As per the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), in the first eight months of 2013, FIRs were registered against 19 people under Section 295. Among them are at least eight Muslims, six Ahmadis and two Christians.
According to HRCP’s 2012 report, 35 cases were registered that year for offences relating to religion. Of the 39 accused, 27 were Muslim, seven were Christian and five were Ahmadi, which means that while Muslims were the main target in terms of numbers, the ratio of non-Muslims far exceeds their representation in the country’s total population.
“When the blasphemy accused is Muslim, he alone will suffer,” says Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, lawyer and chairman of the Pakistan Minorities Alliance. “But when the accused is a member of a minority, the entire community suffers.
” To illustrate his point he cites the examples of the ransacking of Gojra and Joseph Colony.
Blasphemy laws were first instituted in pre-partition India by the British in 1860. They were expanded in 1927 in response to large-scale communal clashes between Hindus and Muslims at the time.
The intention was to control religious violence by criminalising behaviour likely to wound religious sensitivities and thus enable it to be dealt with through courts in a non-violent manner.
After amendments to the blasphemy laws by General Zia-ul-Haq between 1980 and 84, the situation began to change rapidly. “It was not anticipated that from the ’80s the state itself will become party to the law in pursuing cases,” says a lawyer.
According to a report by the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), there were eight cases of blasphemy in the 40 years between ’47 and ’87. From 1987 until August 2012, a period of 25 years, 247 blasphemy cases have been filed, affecting nearly 330 people. And that may only be a partial picture: “A rough estimate of the persons that have been accused is more than 1,000…,” says the report.
Various factors have contributed to a climate of vigilante justice. As per the CRSS report, nearly 60 people accused of blasphemy have been murdered, either while they were under trial or after being acquitted.
There is also intimidation inside the courtroom from the complainant’s supporters. As a lawyer puts it, “No one ever takes up a blasphemy case for money; they only do it to uphold human rights.”
Moreover, judges are reluctant to grant bail in these cases. “They’re more likely to acquit rather than grant bail because they do not want to appear inclined to give interim relief to anyone accused of blasphemy,” says a lawyer.
This is despite the fact that many cases are triggered by personal disputes or a desire to take over property of the accused.
The risk of violence means that often, even after acquittal, anyone accused of blasphemy and his family cannot go back to where they lived before and must either put down roots elsewhere, often under assumed identities, or seek asylum abroad, as young Rimsha Masih was compelled to do recently.
In this country, there is clearly no respite for those once accused of blasphemy.