By Waqar Gillani
ISLAMABAD: The Standing Committee on Human Rights of Senate of Pakistan, upper house of the country’s Parliament, has, consensually, moved to make suggestions for a specific definition of “blasphemy” in the law to stop its ongoing misuse, legislators said.
Religious parties, once again, are opposing the move. Senator Mufti Abdus Sattar of Jamiat Ulema e Islam (Fazl), said, “This is an attempt to change blasphemy laws and to allow people to freely commit blasphemy which is not acceptable.” He said there is no need to change or review any section of these laws at all.
The committee has planned to take up this issue in the light of recommendations of a similar standing committee on human rights of the house, formulated almost 25 years ago, with its report lying in some record shelves “untraceable”, Nasreen Jalil, current chairperson of the committee said.
The move, considered as very important because of this highly sensitive subject of blasphemy amid blatant misuse of this law, is expected to start an honest and serious discussion by the committee members on this sensitive topic, she said.
Jalil said the status of the traced 1991 report was not clear in the sense whether there was any further debate on the recommendations of the then committee to define “blasphemy” properly while introducing only death penalty against any such crime committed against dignity of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).
The blasphemy laws in Pakistan were modified to introduce severer sentences in the 1980s during the time of military dictator Ziaul Haq. An analysis by the human rights groups, testify that the number of blasphemy cases increased many times over after the sentences were revised, indicating misuse after the induction of stricter punishments.
Death penalty for derogatory remarks against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was the severest of all punishments. Others included life imprisonment for desecrating Holy book of Quran and up to 10 years for ridiculing family and companions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Further, in October 1990, country’s Federal Shariah Court ruled the alternative (life imprisonment) punishment in Section 295C of Pakistan Penal Code (blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad) should be deleted “as it was repugnant to Islam.”
The Section 295C of PPC addressing “Use of derogatory remarks, etc, in respect of the Holy Prophet” reads: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”
“A blatant misuse of this law was feared and that is why the 1991 senate committee also called for defining “blasphemy” properly. However, there is no record available whether this exercise was done or not. Now, we want to continue that debate with the consensus of the committee members to address this important and sensitive issue,” Farhatullah Babar, a member of the current senate committee from Pakistan People’s Party said. He added a critical re-examination of Section 295-C was required also because this provision also did not enjoy the unanimous support of Muslim scholars holding different views.
To give effect to a part of the Shariah Court verdict relating to the deletion of the alternative punishment), government moved the Criminal Law (Third Amendment) Bill 1991. In its report on the bill the then committee showed serious concerns about the definition of the offence calling for a dire need to define “blasphemy” first.
The report of 1991 committee says the committee after detailed deliberations decided to recommend the proposed deletion of ‘or imprisonment of life’ from Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, PPC. The members, however, observed that there was a need for a more specific definition of the offence under Section 295 PPC which the members were of the considered opinion was in the present form very generalised.
The committee suggested the matter may be referred to the Council of Islamic Ideology for suggesting a more specific definition of the offence falling under Section 295 PPC as well as for its opinion as to whether during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) or during the period of first four caliphs (Khulafa-i-Rashideen) or afterwards in any of the Muslim countries, what was the punishment awarded to the offenders for committing offence falling under Section 295 PPC.
“We are not in a hurry and we want to take all members of the committee on board and we will seek suggestions of every member in detail to proceed further,” Jalil, chairperson of the committee said. She says in a latest blasphemy case, country’s Supreme Court has also given judgment urging the government to take steps to stop misuse of blasphemy laws. The Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) in its verdict, has also clearly said that discussion on these laws and constructive criticism of them is justified and should not be treated as crime. She said there is serious challenge in this task as anyone can stand up and sabotage the efforts but we feel there is serious need to start this discussion for the betterment of the country.
In a landmark judgment in October 2015, the Supreme Court of Pakistan upheld the death sentence of Malik Mumtaz Qadri who murdered the former Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, in January, 2011. The bench also rightly observed that the laws are made by parliament, a place where the people’s representatives sit in order to legislate and introduce laws to govern society. The laws made by parliament can be criticised and discussed freely without any hurdle as the Constitution of Pakistan provides freedom of speech to every citizen in the country.
Muhammad Mohsin Khan Leghari, another member of the committee, declared this move a positive development towards. “We should not be afraid of this discussion and we should also keep in mind that this law, according to statistics, is mostly used against the Muslims themselves. The number of cases against the Muslims is highest as compared to minorities.” However, some senate committee members from religious parties are opposed to this argument, he mentioned.
The National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a human rights group working under the Catholic Church, in one of its published reports reveals that 1,058 cases of blasphemy have been registered in the last 25 years.
Between 1927 and 1986, only seven cases of blasphemy were registered in the subcontinent. According to data from a report of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Bishops of Pakistan, 200 Christians, 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadis, and 21 Hindus (more than 1,300 cases) were charged with blasphemy from 1987 to 2013. In 2014 the complaints registered were 1400, while in the last 30 years 70 accused of blasphemy have been extra judicially executed.
“There is dire need to positively move forward to discuss this issue and the current senate committee can take up the previous report and can come up with fresh suggestions,” IA Rehman, secretary general Human rights Commission of Pakistan observed.