In all major religions of the world, blasphemy is considered the most serious crime and those who commit this despicable act must be awarded the strictest of punishments. In the contemporary world, many countries have enacted laws that propose severe punishments to the blasphemer. As of 2012, anti-blasphemy laws existed in 32 countries, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Malaysia, Denmark, Finland and Italy; however, the severity of the punishment for committing blasphemy varies from country to country. <div>
Pakistan’s version of the blasphemy law is an extension of offences relating to religion that were first codified by British rulers to protect religious feelings of the people of the Subcontinent in 1860. At present, Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) deals with the crime of “Injuring or defiling place of worship, with Intent to insult the religion of any class,” however, the blasphemy laws were introduced through Sections 295-B (added in 1982) and 295-C (added in 1986) of the PPC during General Ziaul Haq regime. More specifically, Section 295-C made it a criminal offence to use derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).
Subsection 295-B says, “Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.” Section 295-C forbids the use of derogatory words either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, in respect of Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH), and proposes the punishment with death, or imprisonment for life, and also makes liable to fine the one who defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). However, in 1991, the Federal Shariat Court held that the alternative punishment of life imprisonment provided in Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) was repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.
When we take a look at the blasphemy cases in Pakistan, we find that since 1987, more than 1300 people have been accused of this abhorrent act, but none has been executed yet. The accused keep languishing in jails and die while there or even killed by some extremist groups. Currently, about fourteen individuals are on the death row while 19 others are serving life imprisonment in Pakistan on the charges of committing blasphemy.
There have also been instances where extremists, without waiting for the court decision, lynched the accused. As per reports, since 1990, 52 people accused of blasphemy have been lynched before the final decision of the courts. In September 2014, a policeman killed a 70-year-old British man Asghar in Rawalpindi’s Adyala Jail despite the fact that he had been sentenced to death in January 2014. Later, in November, a Christian couple was burnt to death in a brick kiln by a violent mob in Kot Radha Kishan, near Lahore.
Blasphemy is a punishable offence not only in Islam but in other religions also. St. Thomas Aquinas says that blasphemy, “… which is a sin committed directly against God, is more grave than murder …”
Leviticus 24:16 puts it as: “Moreover, the one who blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him. The alien as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.”
Similarly, in Islam, too, the punishment of blasphemy is death as Muslims killed Ka’ab bin Ashraf who satirized the Prophet (PBUH) and Muslims especially after their victory in the Battle of Badr. He also composed verses in which he bewailed the people of Quraysh who had been killed at Badr. Muslims killed him on the orders of Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH).
According to a verdict of the Federal Shariat Court, mentioned in PLD 2008, Muslim states have the power to introduce such laws which inhibit atheists to defame Islam, if they don’t stop, then the state has the power to punish them. It proves that only the state has the power to punish, not individuals. So, according to theological perspectives, there should be anti-blasphemy laws, but not in this way as have in Pakistan where there is always a likelihood of their misuse. There have been reports that because of personal grudges, people falsely accuse their opponents of blasphemy. If there are stringent anti-blasphemy laws in the country, then there should also be a strict punishment for the false accusers.
Some people don’t hesitate to blame others for blasphemy despite being aware that he or she is innocent. During my research on this topic, I conducted an investigating case study of a 25-year-old Muslim woman named Walaiha Arafat, alias Eesha, who was also a victim of the misuse of blasphemy laws.
I found out that Walaiha had been facing problems since the very start of her life. First, her parents got divorced while she was in her infancy and she spent most of her childhood with her grandmother and also spent some years in a boarding school. Then she moved to a small, rented house in Lahore where she started to live along with her two friends. Later on, her friends had an altercation with her on some issue and she expelled one of them from the house. They planned to retaliate.
On March 3, 2012, one of her ex-friends intoxicated her with sleeping pills in tea and trapped her in a preplanned false case of blasphemy. Her ex-friends removed the pages of the Holy Quran and blamed her for desecrating the Holy Quran; they managed a fake witness and presented a security guard as a complainant to police. Her both ex-friends became the eyewitnesses of the incident, which had actually never happened.
At that time Walaiha was preparing for her O level exam and didn’t know even the meanings of blasphemy. She continuously pleaded that she didn’t have any mens rea to commit the alleged offence. But she was sentenced to life imprisonment. Her bail plea was also rejected. Finally, in 2015, the matter came before the Supreme Court of Pakistan. During the SC hearings, two prosecution witnesses deposed before the court that they had no personal knowledge about the alleged defiling of the Quran. One of them, Abdul Munim, the complainant, even stated that he never lodged the complaint. Two eyewitness accounts were also contradictory and inconsistent. In spite of this fact, an extremist group attacked her on a hearing date forcing the proceedings to be held in jail.
After languishing for three and a half years in jail, this innocent girl was finally granted bail by the Supreme Court on October 15, 2015. Soon after her release, she married her fiancé who was helping her throughout her incarceration. Still, the couple is not safe as they are receiving threats from the extremists; the case is dragging on in the lower courts due to the lethargic judicial system.
The panacea for misuse of anti-blasphemy laws, however, is that instead of giving authority to low-rank police officials for registering the anti-blasphemy case, minimum two high-ranking police officers, at least from BPS 17, should be allowed to register the case and that too after proper investigation into the facts. Further, after the declaration of false case, the complainant and false witnesses should face the same punishment which was supposed to be awarded to the defendant. Such an example can be found in PLD 2013 Islamabad High Court’s case of Rimsha Masih vs. Station House Officer in which Justice Iqbal Hameedur Rehman declared complainant, a local cleric, as accused as he falsely blamed a juvenile Christian girl for desecrating the Holy Quran.
It is a dire need of the hour to add a subsection 295-D in Pakistan Penal Code in order to deal with the punishment to those who falsely accuse the innocents for blasphemy.