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This leaves the blasphemy open to terrible abuses. Today the law is regularly used as the means waging personal vendettas, settling disputes.
And, again and again, the laws are used to persecute people from religious minorities. Pakistan’s 2.5 million Christians have suffered disproportionately, as have members of the Ahmadi Muslim sect.
The blasphemy laws and how it is used is highly contentious, both in Pakistan and around the world. The irony is that the original law was designed to promote tolerance…
The original blasphemy laws date back to 1880 when India was under British rule. It made it a crime to disturb a religious assembly, trespass on burial grounds, insult religious beliefs or intentionally destroy or defile a place or an object of worship.
The punishments ranged from one to ten years in prison.
The idea seemed reasonable at the time; however in the last 30 years the law has been amended and brought neither peace nor tolerance.
After the partition of India, Pakistan adopted the blasphemy law and started adding to it. This time though the emphasis was on protecting the majority religion of Islam. And the law went much further.
● 1980 – making derogatory remarks against Islamic persons became an offence, the maximum punishment: three years prison.
● 1982 – You could face life imprisonment for “wilful” desecration of the Koran.
● 1986 – the most controversial clause was introduced: blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed was punishable by “death, or imprisonment for life”.
If you have got a grudge against your next door neighbour or co worker, you can report that they set light to the Q’ran. You don’t have to provide any evidence of this, your eyewitness testimony is often taken as sufficient. This is especially true if your neighbor belongs to a minority religious group, Christian, Ahmadi or Hindu.
The odds are stacked against you if you are accused.
You will be imprisoned without bail while you face trial. Your family might have to flee their home to avoid revenge attacks. Lawyers too can expect violent opposition if they agree to represent you in court. Both lawyers and politicians have been assassinated for speaking up on behalf of people accused of blasphemy.
Since the introduction of the 1986 clause, over 1,300 people have been charged with blasphemy. A number have been sentenced to death and remain in prison, on ‘death row’. So far no one has been formally executed. However a number of the accused have been murdered in extra-judicial killings. And the vigilante killers are rarely brought to justice.
Pakistan is a nation divided over the current blasphemy laws. Feelings run high on both sides. Nearly all the popular secular parties in Pakistan have talked about amending the current law. But none of them have got far – it is such a sensitive issue and you endanger your life by speaking out.
Despite this, the outcry against the blasphemy laws continues – both in Pakistan and around the world. It comes from Muslim religious scholars, religious leaders of all faiths, politicians, law courts, intellectuals and the general public.