Death for blasphemy

Published March 29, 2014

ONCE again, minorities in Pakistan are left feeling insecure, in an unforgiving milieu that preys on their vulnerability. On Thursday, Sawan Masih, a sanitary worker in Lahore, was sentenced to death for blasphemy.

The incident occurred in March last year during an argument between Masih and a Muslim friend, and triggered rioting by an enraged mob that ransacked and set fire to over 100 homes in Joseph Colony, the Christian-majority neighbourhood where Masih lived.

There was no loss of life simply because residents had already fled their homes in fear of such an attack. Masih’s lawyer has said that he will appeal the decision.

Given that no death penalty awarded for blasphemy has yet been confirmed by the higher courts — apart from one handed down in 1998 that was later set aside by the Supreme Court — perhaps this sentence too will be set aside at some point in the future. What can be said with certainty, though, is that Masih became a marked man from the moment he was accused of blasphemy.

The reality of Pakistan today is that mere accusation of this crime, howsoever unsubstantiated, instantly imperils the life of the individual concerned, and that threat persists not only throughout his incarceration, but even after acquittal.

Minorities are particularly impacted by the blasphemy law. Firstly, they are disproportionately targeted as compared to their actual representation in the population.

Secondly, when one of them is accused, the entire community is made to suffer, as illustrated by the mob violence in Joseph Colony, Gojra, etc or in lesser known cases where communities have been intimidated into moving en masse out of the locality. In fact, the desire to grab land or settle personal scores often underlies blasphemy allegations. That is all the more reason the law needs to be revisited.

Moreover, what message does it send to Pakistan’s Christian community that while Masih is on death row, the trial of those accused of the horrific attack on Joseph Colony is proceeding at a snail’s pace?

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