Climate of fear over Pakistan blasphemy laws

The scene in Islamabad where Shahbaz Bhatti was murdered The scene of Shahbaz Bhatti's murder is festooned with banners and flowers commemorating his life

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Earlier this year two prominent politicians in Pakistan were murdered over their opposition to Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws. The BBC's Jill McGivering investigates how the abuse of these laws is creating a climate of fear among Pakistan's religious minorities.

One stretch of road in a residential suburb of Islamabad has the air of a shrine.

This is where Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was shot dead in March. Bunches of flowers, many now dry and brown, are piled on the kerb. Large colour posters showing his picture are displayed alongside.

On seeing the media, guards from his mother's home nearby rush out to explain what happened.

Mr Bhatti had just left her home, they say as they walk me through the short distance, when another car blocked his path at the junction and the gunmen inside it opened fire.

Mr Bhatti's murder shocked Pakistan.

It came just weeks after the shooting of another prominent politician, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer.

Both men had dared to speak out about the need for debate and possible reform of the controversial blasphemy laws.

And both men paid with their lives.

Not long before his death, Mr Bhatti had a long phone conversation with one of his brothers, Paul, an affluent doctor based in Italy. I met Paul Bhatti in Shahbaz Bhatti's old offices.

'Victimised'

"We discussed his work and the threat to his life," he told me. "I tried to persuade him to stop and move to Europe but he wouldn't."

Lawyer Meher Aslam Nasir Meher Aslam Nasir is pursuing a charge of blasphemy against some Ahmadi men

Now, as a result of his brother's death, Paul Bhatti has decided to suspend his medical career, return to Pakistan and continue his brother's fight.

"We need to change the laws," he said, "and also change people's thinking. Some people think we want to amend the laws so that people can commit blasphemy. Of course we don't want that - why would anyone want to do that?

"But we do want to protect innocent people who are victimised by this law. Some people use it for personal revenge."

The Bhatti family are Christians and particularly aware of false blasphemy charges made against religious minorities.

In terms of actual numbers, most cases are filed against Muslims - but groups like Christians and Ahmadis, a very small proportion of Pakistan's population, account for a disproportionately high percentage of cases.

Start Quote

It's not only Christians. It's also many Muslims who are suffering because of this”

End Quote Joseph Coutts Roman Catholic Bishop of Faisalabad

The recent high-profile murders have certainly added to the climate of fear surrounding this highly sensitive issue.

As I travelled through Pakistan, speaking to people who are directly involved with current cases, either as accusers or accused, many were terrified.

Many of the accused, even those who had been acquitted by the courts, have been forced to abandon their homes and go into hiding.

A blasphemy conviction carries the death penalty although in practice it is not carried out in these cases.

But the accused, whether they are convicted or not, face a constant threat of being murdered.

Many Pakistani Muslims feel intense passion about their faith. Any suggestion that someone may have insulted the Prophet or defiled the Koran sparks anger which can sometimes turn to physical violence.

Conservative clerics oppose attempts to reform the laws. They also warn that if the courts are lenient, the public may increasingly choose to take the law into its own hands and execute its own form of extra-judicial justice.

In Nankana Sahib in Punjab Province, I met Meher Aslam Nasir, a lawyer and leading member of an Islamic political party. He is currently pursuing a charge of blasphemy against several Ahmadi men.

"As Muslims, how can we allow anyone to intentionally or unintentionally defame the Prophet and not bring them to justice? We must implement the law. Innocent people have never been targeted and never will be," he said.

'False accusations'

But others disagree. Joseph Coutts, the Catholic Bishop of Faisalabad, says his concern is not with the purpose of the laws but with the way he says they are being abused.

Christians at a church service in Mr Bhatti's family village of Khushk Pur in Punjab Christians argue they are often falsely accused of blasphemy

"Most cases are false accusations," he told me, "to settle personal disputes or sometimes for land grabbing. Once you are accused, no-one stops to ask: excuse me, did you really say this? The emotions just boil over.

"And if it is announced from the mosque, everyone accepts it as true and they're ready to attack the person. It's not only Christians. It's also many Muslims who are suffering because of this."

There are concerns too about the difficulty of proving innocence. Allegations that someone verbally insulted the Prophet often come down to one person's word against another's.

Some suggest that one way of reducing false and malicious allegations would be to introduce stiff penalties for anyone who makes an allegation which fails to lead to a conviction.

In the meantime, one consequence of the recent bloodshed is that public debate has been stifled.

To critics of these laws, that is a severe blow to Pakistan's weak democracy as it continues to battle against Islamic extremism.

Jill McGivering's report Blasphemy: A Matter of Life and Death can be heard on the Assignment programme on the BBC World Service on Thursday 28 April.

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