WASHINGTON: In Pakistan, 14 individuals are currently on death row on blasphemy convictions and 19 are serving life sentences, says a report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“Countless other individuals have been arrested for the ‘crime’ and await sentencing,” says the report released, on Thursday afternoon. There is also a woman - Aasia Noreen Bibi - among those sentenced to death.
The report - “Prisoners of Belief Individuals Jailed under Blasphemy Laws,” points out that many countries around the world have laws that punish expressions deemed blasphemous but “Pakistan’s blasphemy law is used at a level incomparable to others”.
Calling it “the most egregious example “ of punishing people over religious beliefs, the report notes that blasphemy charges are common in Pakistan and numerous individuals are in prison, with a high number sentenced to death or life terms.
The report also notes that in both Pakistan and Egypt, blasphemy laws have been used more against Muslims, although they have a disproportionate impact on their small Christian minorities.
While the death penalty for blasphemy has never been carried out in Pakistan, individuals accused of blasphemy have been murdered in associated vigilante violence. Despite the law’s rampant abuse and lack of procedural safeguards, Pakistan’s Federal Shariat Court recently ruled that the death penalty should be the only penalty for blasphemy, the report adds.
In Iran, blasphemers are charged under a range of offences, such as spreading corruption on earth, insulting religious sanctities, insulting Islam, criticising the Islamic regime, or deviating from Islamic standards.
The government targets religious minorities with such charges, particularly Bahai’s, Christians, Sunni and Sufi Muslims, as well as Shia dissidents and journalists.
In Saudi Arabia, the government uses charges of blasphemy to target those seeking to debate the role of religion in relation to the state, as well as promoters of political and human rights reforms.
For instance, Saudi blogger Hamza Kashgari was held on blasphemy charges from February 2012 to October 2013 for comments he posted on Twitter. One individual is currently known to be serving a jail sentence.
In Bangladesh, three self-professed atheists were arrested last year and Indonesia has arrested more than 120 people since 2003 for blasphemy, although they generally have not been prosecuted.
Egypt has seen a significant increase in the use of blasphemy-type laws, both during and after the Morsi era.
Last year, Russia also enacted a blasphemy law after punk band Pussy Riot put on a performance critical of President Vladimir Putin inside a cathedral.