Q&A: Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws

Related Stories

Pakistan's blasphemy laws carry a potential death sentence for anyone who insults Islam. Critics say they have been used to persecute minority faiths.

What are the recent controversies?

The laws have been contentious since the formation of Pakistan in 1947, but attention in recent months has been focused on a teenage girl with learning difficulties, known as Rimsha, who was accused of desecrating the Koran. An imam was later arrested for allegedly planting evidence. Another prominent case is that of Christian mother-of-five Asia Bibi, sentenced to death in November 2010 for insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

The following January Punjab Governor Salman Taseer - a prominent critic of the law - was assassinated by his bodyguard. The assassination divided Pakistan, with some hailing his killer as a hero.

In March 2011 Religious Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who spoke out against the laws, was shot dead in Islamabad.

When do the laws date from?

The offences relating to religion were first codified by India's British rulers in 1860, and were expanded in 1927. Pakistan inherited these laws after the partition of India in 1947.

Between 1980 and 1986, a number of clauses were added to the laws by the military government of General Zia-ul Haq. He wanted to "Islamicise" them and also legally to separate the Ahmadi community, declared non-Muslim in 1973, from the main body of Pakistan's overwhelmingly Muslim population.

Pakistani Christians mourn the death of Mr Bhatti in Lahore Christians have often fallen foul of the blasphemy laws

What do the laws say?

The law enacted by the British was general in nature, prescribing punishments for intentionally destroying or defiling a place or an object of worship or disturbing a religious assembly. They also made it unlawful to trespass on burial grounds or insult religious beliefs through the spoken or written word or by innuendo or visible representation. The maximum punishment under these laws ranges from one year to 10 years in jail, with or without a fine.

Beginning in 1980, a slew of clauses was added to the chapter of religious offences in the Pakistan Penal Code. These clauses can be grouped into two categories - the anti-Ahmadi laws and the blasphemy laws.

The anti-Ahmadi laws were included in 1984. They bar the Ahmadis from calling themselves or behaving as Muslims, preaching their faith and using Islamic terms for their places of worship and religious rituals.

The blasphemy laws were created and expanded in several instalments. In 1980, a clause was added to the law, making derogatory remarks against Islamic personages an offence, carrying a maximum punishment of three years in jail.

In 1982, another clause prescribed life imprisonment for "wilful" desecration of the Koran, the Muslim holy book. In 1986, a separate clause was inserted to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad and the penalty recommended was "death, or imprisonment for life", in that order.

Who is affected by the laws?

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) - a voluntary organisation - has been documenting blasphemy cases. It says that Muslims constitute the majority of those booked under these laws, followed by the Ahmadi community. According to the HRCP, since 1988 around 1,000 cases have been lodged for desecration of the Koran, while nearly 50 cases have been lodged for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad.

Lower courts have handed down hundreds of convictions in these cases, but nearly all of them have been reversed by the higher courts due to lack of evidence, faults in due process or obvious wrongful motives on the part of the complainants. Hundreds of Christians are among the accused - at least 12 of them were given the death sentence for blaspheming against the Prophet.

Are they fairly applied?

At the level of the lower judiciary, there is often considerable pressure on the judges to order convictions, especially in cases relating to Ahmadis and blasphemy. But most decisions fail the test of the law at the higher judicial level, where offenders are often acquitted.

One reason is that organised religious groups are able to influence lower judges more easily than judges of the higher courts, although their influence there is growing too. Second, rights groups say most cases are motivated by local rivalries which are more easily exposed by the higher judiciary than the lower courts.

Legal experts say convictions under the law regulating blasphemy against the Prophet are easier to obtain because it does not establish a link between an offence and the intention, so that even an unintentional act can also be treated as a wilful offence.

Do most Pakistanis support the laws?

A large majority of Pakistani people support the idea that blasphemers should be punished, but there is little understanding of what the religious scripture says as opposed to how the modern-day law is codified.

The response to recent events suggests that they largely believe the law, as codified by the military regime of General Zia-ul Haq back in the 1980s, is in fact straight out of the Koran and therefore is not man-made.

The organised religious groups are promoting this view and have been able to mobilise mass support in their favour. Their highest point came when the assassin of Governor Salman Taseer in 2011 was hailed as a hero by a large section of people across the country.

Pakistani Christians mourn the death of Mr Bhatti in Lahore Christians have often fallen foul of the blasphemy laws

Why do the authorities appear reluctant to amend them?

Amending the blasphemy laws has been on the agenda of nearly all the popular secular parties. But none of them has made much progress - principally because of the sensitivities over the issue, but also because no major party wants to antagonise the religious parties which have on numerous occasions proved capable of bringing large numbers of protesters on to the streets.

In 2010, a member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Sherry Rehman, introduced a private bill to amend the blasphemy law. Her bill sought to change procedures of religious offences in such a way that these offences would be reported to a higher police official rather than the usual police station chief. In addition the cases would be heard directly by the higher courts instead of going through the local courts first.

The bill was passed on to a parliamentary committee for vetting. It was withdrawn in February 2011 under pressure from religious forces as well as some opposition political groups. Given the growing religious conservatism in Pakistan, the government is wary about losing public support over the issue, correspondents say.

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More South Asia stories

RSS

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.