Pakistani Supreme Court says criticism of blasphemy does not amount to blasphemy

In a landmark statement for freedom of religion in Pakistan, the Pakistan Supreme Court said on Monday (5 October) that criticising the country’s notoriously harsh blasphemy laws is not blasphemy. Political figures in Pakistan’s recent history who opposed or attempted to amend the blasphemy laws have been violently pressured into backtracking, and several have been killed.

Under the blasphemy laws, anyone found guilty of “defiling the name” of Muhammad faces a mandatory death sentence. However, a simple accusation is enough to make the accused vulnerable to extrajudicial murder as zealous Muslims take the law into their own hands. The blasphemy issue is very sensitive and Christians are often falsely accused of blasphemy by enemies who use it as a way of settling a personal grudge or to grab property.

The Supreme Court’s statement was made during the appeal hearing of Mumtaz Qadri, a police commando sentenced to death for the assassination of Salman Taseer, the then governor of Punjab, on 4 January 2011. The Punjab governor was shot dead for criticising Pakistan’s blasphemy laws after he had visited Christian mother-of-five Aasia Bibi, who has been falsely accused of insulting the name of Muhammad in 2009.

The three-panel bench headed by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa maintained Qadri’s death sentence on 7 October. The entire argument for Qadri’s appeal was based on the belief that Qadri’s murder of Salman Taseer was justified because he was convinced that Taseer had committed blasphemy when he criticised the blasphemy law, calling it a “black law”.

But “will it not instil fear in the society if everybody starts taking the law into their own hands and dealing with sensitive matters such as blasphemy on their own rather than going to the courts,” asked Justice Asif Saeed Khosa.

The blasphemy law, under Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code, dates back to 1860, but Sections 295-B and 295-C were introduced in 1982 and 1986, respectively, during the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq.

Section 295-B prescribes life imprisonment for wilfully defiling, damaging or desecrating a copy of the Quran or an extract of it, or for using it in a derogatory manner or for unlawful purpose. Section 295-C is about “defiling the name” of Muhammad and prescribes two possible punishments – life imprisonment or death. In 1990, the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) ruled that the government should remove the life imprisonment option from Section 295-C.

Since 1986, at least 150 Christians, 564 Muslims, 459 Ahmadis (followers of a non-mainstream branch of Islam) and 21 Hindus have been jailed under blasphemy charges; before 1986 only 14 blasphemy cases were reported. Although no one has yet been executed under the blasphemy laws, 14 people are currently on death row and a further 19 are serving life sentences.

In 1991, the government of Nawaz Sharif tried to file an appeal against the FSC’s 1990 ruling, but later withdrew it. In 1994, Benazir Bhutto’s government opposed the blasphemy laws and attempted to introduce changes that would prevent their abuse, but she was assassinated in 2007 because she was pushing for reform in a number of areas relating to more hardline Islamic views, including the blasphemy laws.

After coming to power in 2000, President Pervez Musharraf attempted to amend the blasphemy laws, but vociferous opposition of various Islamist organisations, who threatened to take to the streets to protest, caused him to backtrack.

Shortly after the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bahatti was gunned down in March 2011 after he appealed for reform of the blasphemy laws, and Pakistan People’s Party MP Sherry Rehman withdrew her attempt to amend the laws in February 2011 after receiving numerous death threats.

The Supreme Court’s statement that criticism of the blasphemy laws does not amount to blasphemy is a significant victory. While the path to full protection against the accusation of blasphemy for Pakistan’s Christians is a long one, the freedom to allow high-level debate within Pakistan itself could mark the beginning of another step forward.

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