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ISLAMABAD, July 19: The Human Rights Cell of the Pakistan People’s Party has apprised the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, of the threat posed to civil society in Pakistan by the draconian blasphemy law.

The coordinator of the PPP cell, Fauzia Wahab, in a letter addressed to Ms Robinson, said: “A convict in the blasphemy case was murdered in jail. It is reported that an activist of (the banned) Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, a religious political party notorious for its terrorist activities, opened fire on Mohammad Yousuf, killing him instantly.

“Not much is known about Mohammad Yousuf, except that he had been sentenced to death on account of the blasphemy, and was serving his jail sentence in the Kot Lakhpat prison, Lahore. His murder has left many shocked, wondering how long we will be held hostage by these extremist elements of the country.

“A mentally sick man by the name of Zahid Shah was sentenced to death on the call of the semi-literate Pesh Imam (prayer leader) of a local mosque accusing him of blasphemy. Another person by the name of Younus Khan is awaiting execution. He, too, has been found guilty of blasphemy.”

Giving the background of this law, she wrote that the blasphemy law was first introduced by the British to protect religious rights of the Muslim minorities in the subcontinent.

“Therefore, after independence, this law should have been abolished. But unfortunately it did not happen so. Instead it was made more stringent and the death sentence was made mandatory in 1980, 1982, 1986 and in 1991 (the heyday of ISI), which further aggravated the wave of intolerance in the socio-political structure of our country. It has become a means of hounding and harassing opponents and settling personal scores.

“There are no special rules of evidence provided by the law for prosecuting the alleged offender, even oral evidence of a dubious kind is sufficient to award the accused death punishment. In a country, where people live in abysmal poverty, false evidence can easily be obtained for money or under prodding from interested quarters.

“Even proceedings are watched by these people (and) no judge can dare to be fair and just in these cases as he fears for his own safety. The charges against the alleged offender can rarely be challenged and rarely be disproved in the courts of the country.

“The minorities live in permanent fear of this law. Anybody can invoke it and get an FIR registered without providing any evidence against anybody. Many have fallen victim to this law. Only in the year 2000, 52 cases were registered, out of which 43 were against the Muslims and nine against non-Muslims.

“The Human Rights Cell of the Pakistan People’s Party requests your authority to take cognizance of this draconian law and exercise your influence for the eradication of it,” the letter concluded.