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Sherry Rehman submits bill in National Assembly for amendment to blasphemy laws


Pakistan People’s Party MNA Sherry Rehman, while lending support to blasphemy convict Aasia Bibi, on Monday called for urgent amendments to the country’s blasphemy laws.

Sherry Rehman, the former minister of information and spokesman for the Pakistan People’s Party has submitted a private member bill in the National Assembly Secretariat that would—among other things—eliminate the death sentence for those convicted of committing blasphemy against Prophet Mohammed[PBUH] (295 C) and replace it with a 10-year prison term. Certainly this would spare the accused from death, but no Christian has spent more than six or seven years in prison on blasphemy charges; eventually they’ve been released by order of the High Court. This may potentially add time in prison for those falsely accused.

Sherry Rehman says, the blasphemy laws reflect the larger problem of extremism and lack of respect for human rights. “Even with full repeal, the abuse of minorities won’t stop. Most cases are perpetrated by mobs. They, too, must know the law will take cognisance of their behaviour as criminal and liable for punishment,” adds Rehman.

She will chair a roundtable conference today (Tuesday) on amendments to these laws. The conference, to be organised under the auspices of the Jinnah Institute, of which Rehman is president, will engage academics, lawyers and other members of civil society in an open discussion on the amendments to the blasphemy laws.

It will highlight the case of Aasia Bibi and the blatant abuse of the legislation in bringing false claims against members of minority communities. The participants will include Supreme Court Bar Association President Asma Jahangir, HRCP General Secretary Hina Jilani, National Commission on the status of Women Chairman Anis Haroon, Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, Ali Dayan Hasan, former chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology Dr Khalid Masood and religious scholar Javed Ghamdi.

A press release issued by the Jinnah Institute on Monday read: “The blasphemy laws as set out in the Pakistan Penal Code (sections 295 and 298) find their roots in British colonial law and have in their present form become a source of victimisation and persecution of the minorities in the country. The amendments to the blasphemy laws is intended to ensure that all citizens of the country have an equal right to constitutional protection and that miscarriages of justice in the name of blasphemy are avoided at all costs. The bill amends both the Pakistan Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure, the two main sources of criminal law. The aim is to amend the codes to ensure protection of minorities and vulnerable citizens.”

Sherry Rehman slams abuse of blasphemy laws

The president Asif Ali Zardari’s top representative in Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer reverberated and redoubled the sentiments of many pro-democracy & human rights backers and campaigners recently when he said Pakistan’s blasphemy law is not “God given, but man made.” His remarks came following a meeting with Asia Bibi, the Christian mother of five sentenced to death for allegedly committing blasphemy against the prophet Mohammed[PBUH]. Taseer called blasphemy an offense, but said falsely accusing someone of committing it is an even greater offense.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STxxAIuVP00

In jail since June 2009, Asia Bibi, a Christian, was sentenced to death on Nov. 12 under the country’s blasphemy laws, which penalise offending Islam in this majority Muslim country.

The whole world is deeply shocked and concerned over Asia Bibi’s death sentence for blasphemy, issued by a local court in Pakistan. Concerned citizens and human rights activists say the case of Asia Bibi – the first woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy – highlights the need for urgent repeal of laws that are routinely used to persecute minorities and settle grudges. It has also revived a long-running debate about the blasphemy laws and what critics have said is their abuse to persecute minorities.

“It remains to be seen if the government has the political will to stand up to Islamist and anti-human rights lobbies within the political class, the civil administration and the judiciary,” says Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch.

Beyond Bibi’s case, the challenge remains the building of political will among political parties in the parliament so that they take a stand despite the backlash from religious and conservative groups.

The blurring and disorientation must be hammer out and the issue of amendments to the blasphemy laws be taken up in a austere & contemplative manner. The persevered and remained continuance of the laws in their present articulation deliver or work for no purpose other than to conventionally & systematically bring Pakistan into the international headlines for all the undesirable apologia, and to highlight the manner in which the state allows rights’ exploitation to arise with exemption.

Read the Jinnah Institute Briefing Pack: Amendments to the Blasphemy Laws Act 2010
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“The current Blasphemy Law is mis-used for injustice.”

Islamabad, November 30: Members of civil society, religious scholars, lawyers, NGO representatives and the Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, gathered to discuss the amendments to the Blasphemy Laws in light of the recent case of Aasia Bibi and the blatant abuse of the legislation to persecute minorities. The event, organized solely by the Jinnah Institute without the involvement of foreign donors, led to a lively and informed debate.

Under discussion also, was a bill submitted by Sherry Rehman, former federal minister, and President Jinnah Institute. The Bill seeks to amend the Blasphemy Laws, sections 295A-C and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and the Code of Criminal Procedure (CCrP) as amended under General Zia. It is intended, that the Bill will ensure that all citizens of Pakistan have an equal right to constitutional protection and that miscarriages of justice in the name of Blasphemy are avoided at all costs.

“If laws are to be made, they must be made for the protection of the people, not to exploit the people in the name of religion,” these comments were made by the renowned Muslim scholar, Professor Javed Ahmed Ghamdi via Video Conferencing at a Round Table meeting organized by the Jinnah Institute.

Professor Ghamdi categorically stated that blasphemy laws are contradictory to the teachings of both Quran and Sunnah. According to Professor Ghamdi, in Islam, the death penalty can be applied by a court as punishment only in the case of intentional murder or “fasad fil-ardh” (spreading of mischief in the land).

The blasphemy law has been in place since the Colonial era but only a limited number of cases resulted in convictions during that time. However, religious scholars and leaders gained access to policy making during General Zia’s rule and a new set of stricter blasphemy laws were passed, after which the number of cases escalated. This religious lobby wanted to promote its political agenda.

According to Professor Ghamdi, the Prophet(PBUH) does not need law making to defend him and the blasphemy law that exists is based purely on our emotions and not on Islamic jurisprudence.

Dr Khalid Masood (Former Chairman, Council of Islamic Ideology) provided a scholarly summary of the contentious laws in relation to Islam, explaining that the definition of blasphemy or ‘sab-o-shitam’ is unclear and that the severe penalties provided by the legislation do not find any reference in the Koran or Hadith.

Dr Masood stated that in the Quran there is no ayat that justifies saza on tauheen e risalat, not to say that it is condoned and pardoned. It has been said that God will give punishment. In fiqh, all moslim scholars have different views, to think that all say the same in incorrect.

A minority syndrome existed in India, where muslims were fewer in number and were on the defensive. Where in a society where the muslims are now in a majority they should preferably have a different response to this issue. We must keep in consideration that whatever law is made, it does not lead to the disrepute of Islam. Whoever the accused is, he should be given a fair chance, issues should not be solved through hollow slogans.

Sherry Rehman noted that as the law currently stands the definition of the term blasphemy is vague, yet it carries a mandatory death sentence under section 295C. The Amendment to the Blasphemy Laws Act 2010 will not only rationalize the punishments prescribed for offences relating to religion provided under section 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code but ensure that the concept of criminal intent is taken into account when charging an individual with this offence. Other amendments include new sections (198E and 203A) to ensure that charges brought frivolously under the Blasphemy Laws will be punished. Similarly, advocating religious hatred will be penalized. Cases brought under these sections will be heard in the High Court to ensure more public scrutiny.

Sherry Rehman, made it clear that it is essential not only to “remove the teeth and infamous use of the Blasphemy Laws but to understand the way forward for our society, as minorities and vulnerable communities remain the most exploited members of society.” She sais that “we need to seek out a way of removing these laws from the statute books”.

Ali Dayan Hasan (Human Rights Watch and Board of Advisors Jinnah Institute) compared the ongoing persecution of minorities under the Blasphemy Laws to apartheid in South Africa. Dr Anis Haroon (Chair NCSW) also spoke in detail about, the case of Aasia Bibi, a Christian labourer sentenced to death under s.295C of the PPC. Anis Haroon said that “We live in such an intolerant culture where mosques take over the role of the judiciary…any laws which take away the rights of any culture should be repealed.” Aasia’s case is a glaring example of how innocent people can be wrongfully charged and sentenced to death under these unfair laws.

Leading members of the Christian Community, including Group Captain (retd.) Cecil Chaudhary and Joseph Francis provided detailed examples of injustices suffered by their community under the auspices of the Blasphemy laws. Members of the Christian communities felt that their homes are targeted and their lives are threatened on a daily basis due to these laws.

Asma Jahangir stated that “if we believe in rule of law, we must believe that laws should protect the religious rights of minorities rather than as a tool to exploit religion.” She said that we need to rethink our laws in the name of justice and compassion. She exhorted the gathering to ‘please not twist the law because these judgments create a precedent.’

Shabaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minorites, thanked the Jinnah Institute for organizing this important meeting. He highlighted the difficulties surrounding the Aasia Bibi case and explained that if the withdrawal of the blasphemy laws is not possible then amendments must be made to prevent the continuing suffering of people under these laws. He expressed his personal support of the Bill and said he would seek the support of the Government of Pakistan in moving it forward. He was vocal about the discriminative justice that is meted out to the minority communities in Pakistan and called for change in this country with a move towards Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan.

The meeting ended with representatives of the Christian community calling for the repeal of section 295 and the engagement of civil society in providing an adequate response, which goes further than just repeal. Emotional appeals for assistance with specific cases were also made. Sherry Rehman concluded that it is important for civil society and legislators to work hand in hand.

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Junaid Qaiser

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  • The use and abuse of blasphemy -by Murtaza Razvi
    Pakistan’s blasphemy law reeks of medieval witch-hunting, especially as it specifically targets the already constrained minorities. Since its inception in 1984 under the dictatorial rule of General Zia-ul-Haq, it has remained controversial, and claimed 10 lives extra-judicially, including those of two judges who had acquitted the accused. There has never been a conviction so far in that the latest accused, Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, is the first one. She has been imprisoned for over a year and sentenced to death by a lower court earlier this month for allegedly defaming the Prophet of Islam.

    The law as it stands is no less than an instrument of oppression, and has been patently abused for personal score-settling. As with other so-called, and always controversial, Islamic Sharia laws that exist in Pakistan, the onus of proving innocence lies with the accused. This terrible feature utterly flouts the norms of natural justice. While civil society, rights groups, parliamentary committees and even the Federal Sharia Court and the Council of Islamic Ideology have recommended all but a repeal of the blasphemy law in the past, no government has had the courage to undo the blatant injustice that this and many other Sharia laws have dispensed. And now the possible granting of a presidential pardon to the convicted woman, Aasia Bibi, itself has become controversial, with right-wing elements demanding her execution.
    The ongoing “war on terror” has drawn many new battle lines on the social landscape here, as hundreds of Pakistanis were picked up during the Musharraf regime and handed over to America without any due process. Many were held for months and years without trial in prisons in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay; those who did undergo trial were convicted and handed out very harsh sentences under the new US anti-terrorism laws, and not without controversy. The recent conviction and sentencing to 86 years in a US prison of the Pakistani doctor, Aafia Siddiqui, over charges that she had tried to kill American soldiers while in custody in Afghanistan, has become a sore point. It has created much resentment in Pakistan, and to an extent generated a certain vengeful and devious mindset that is looking to make a horrible example of anyone accused of a crime here, with the Islamists insisting that the accused be subjected to equally stern Islamic laws.
    The masochistic urge to swiftly bring the accused to justice without any process whatsoever has manifest itself in recent years in its crudest form. Blasphemy accused and alleged thieves and robbers — including in one harrowing case in September, two teenaged boys in Sialkot — have been beaten to death by a raging mad crowd; others have been burnt alive in Karachi. In certain cases the police too were part of such gross miscarriages of justice, yet few heads rolled. In a country where Islamist terrorists strike with impunity on a daily basis against their Muslim targets, such as Sufi saints’ shrines and mosques, and US drones rain down bombs, often killing innocent people, a certain amount of brutalisation of the public psyche and the urge for revenge have combined to unleash a sinister disorder. The government has all but failed to check the lawlessness.

    In the case of the blasphemy accused Aasia Bibi, it is said the charge brought against her has more to do with repugnant caste and race relations than with blasphemy. She had dared to touch the water drawn by fellow Muslim village women, who accused her of having polluted their water because she was a non-Muslim and deemed “untouchable” — even though no such distinction is admissible in Islam. However, under the controversial blasphemy law, the testimony of only two adult Muslims is required for the accusation.
    Christians and members of the minority Ahmadiyya community, a large section of which believes in the continuation of Islamic prophethood beyond Prophet Muhammad, and all of whom were declared non-Muslim by an act of parliament under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1974, have borne the brunt of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Which is not to say that Muslims have been spared; blasphemy accused have had to flee the country to escape lynching.
    The abysmal state of Pakistani society today, which is in the thick of social turmoil, owes much to the unholy mixing of religion, politics and statecraft in the post-1970 period. State ideology based on Islam being the premise of the foundation of this country since that time in particular has eroded all secular state and social institutions. In the case of the Ahmadiyya community, Pakistan even managed to create a minority when none existed amongst its Muslim population, with the sole aim of systematically persecuting the adherents of that faith. In that sense society is now reaping the bitter harvest of what was sown and then nurtured, whether actively or by tolerating bigotry in its many forms, by successive rulers — whether democratically elected or dictators.
    http://www.indianexpress.com/news/the-use-and-abuse-of-blasphemy/717455/3

  • Asma Jahangir assails LHC’s Aasia order
    ISLAMABAD: Supreme Court Bar Association President Asma Jahangir denounced on Tuesday the stay granted by the Lahore High Court against any action leading to a presidential pardon for blasphemy accused Aasia Bibi.

    In her first comment on the LHC order, Ms Jahangir expressed surprise that a stay had been granted on an action that was yet to take place. She disapproved of the idea of suspending the constitutional prerogative of the executive.

    “If they want to get popular there are other ways to do it. Do not twist the laws as court verdicts become precedence,” she remarked.

    Ms Jahangir was speaking at a seminar on ‘The blasphemy laws: a call for review, organised by Jinnah Institute,’ a think-tank launched by former information minister Sherry Rehman.

    Constitutional expert Basharat Qadir read out article 45 of the Constitution which empowers the president to grant pardon, reprieve and respite, and to remit, suspend or commute any sentence passed by any court, tribunal or other authority.

    Ms Jahangir criticised the blasphemy law in its present form and observed that laws should be made to protect religious minorities and not to provide a tool to some people to exploit it in the name of religion.

    She said people did not want to commit blasphemy. “I have never seen anybody committing blasphemy. Why would somebody do it in front of a religious leader.” She pointed out that most of the time the complainant was a religious leader. She said only a mad person would do it and mentally challenged persons deserved mercy.

    Chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) Anis Haroon said the commission was concerned about Aasia Bibi’s security. She said minorities were not harming the interests of the country.

    Former chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology Dr Khalid Masood said there was ‘religious illiteracy’ even among the literates. He said nowhere in the Holy Quran there is mention of death sentence for those committing blasphemous acts.

    Other speakers, including Sherry Rehman, Tahira Abdullah and Ali Hassan, rejected the blasphemy law as discriminatory and called for either repealing or suitably amending it.

  • Blasphemy law was created by Gen Ziaul Haq to appease religious elements with a mala fide intent to prolong his rule. It is recommended to repeal the amendments to the law introduced by General Zia or some significant changes. President had announced formation of a high-level committee which after consultations with all stakeholders, including religious scholars and political leaders, would submit its recommendations to the parliament. The commission was concerned about Aasia Bibi’s security. Minorities were not harming the interests of the country. There was ‘religious illiteracy’ even among the literates. Nowhere in the Holy Quran there is mention of death sentence for those committing blasphemous acts. The blasphemy laws of Pakistan which impose harsh penalties in the name of religion, including capital punishment, were never authorised either by the Quran or by the authentic Traditions of the Prophet. They are certainly not sacrosanct and can be rescinded or drastically modified.

  • Blasphemy laws: 58% of women booked are Muslims
    22 of a total of 38 women booked under the blasphemy laws are Muslims, data obtained from different organisations by The Express Tribune reveals.
    The data also shows that 14 out of the 38 women booked under the blasphemy laws were Christian. A Hindu and an Ahamdi were also among those accused of blasphemy.
    Dr Mehdi Hasan, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) chairperson, said that around 80 per cent of those accused of blasphemy were falsely implicated. “Many people get a blasphemy case registered against their opponents because of property issues or other personal or family vendetta,” said Hasan.
    Syed Mumtaz Alam Gilani, the federal minister for human rights, said that more and more Muslims were using the laws to settle scores with fellow Muslims. “Currently, there are around 42 cases in which Muslims have registered FIRs against Muslims,” the minister said. Gilani also said that a parliamentary committee was trying to come up with proposals to ensure that the laws are not misused.
    Records of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and Ministry of Human Rights, also show that 37 of these women were booked between 1990 and 2010 while only one case was registered in 1987.
    33 women of the 38 are from the Punjab.
    Cases against six were registered in Lahore, five in Sheikhupura, four in Kasur, two in Rawalpindi and two in Gujranwala.
    According to the record available, a Mrs Krishna was the only one to have been booked from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Akhtari Begum and Tabassum Malkana from Sindh and a Zaibun Nisa from Islamabad. The location of one Bushra Taseer booked under 295-C in 1996 was not clear from the records.
    Nazia, Zaibun Nisa, Nasreen Bibi and Naseem Bibi were acquitted.
    An ‘un-discriminatory’ law
    There have been at least two cases, in which mentally-challenged women were also booked for blasphemy.
    Zaibun Nisa, a mentally-challenged Muslim accused, was released after 14 years in prison. The Lahore High Court acquitted the 60-year-old on July 22, 2010.
    In another case, Naseem Bibi, another mentally challenged person, was acquitted after eight months of being accused of blasphemy.
    Acquitted not compensated
    A case was registered against Nazia in June 2009 under Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code in Kharian. Nazia, a Christian, always maintained that she did not desecrate the Quran, as was alleged. Soon after the registration of a case against her, she was socially boycotted and had to live alone for six months. The issue was resolved by local elders who found her ‘innocent’. Following that finding the case was dropped. “I hadn’t done anything of the kind and I was happy when the case was dropped. But the time as a person accused of blasphemy was the most difficult one,” she says.
    Nasreen Bibi of Kabirwala was convicted and awarded life imprisonment but her conviction was later over turned by the Supreme Court.
    However, none of the women acquitted filed for damages.
    Peter Jacob, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Pakistani Church secretary, said that the women did not file defamation or damages suits against complainants because “they do not want the social pressure”. On how to ensure that the laws are not used to settle personal scores, Jacob added, “There should be a penalty for the complainant if his accusations cannot be proven in court. But this is just a safeguard. These laws have many weaknesses.” The secretary said that amendments proposed by Sherry Rehman to the bill that she has recently submitted in the National Assembly were a step in the right direction.
    The bill proposes amendments to the Pakistan Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure, the two main sources of criminal law, calls for a clearer definition of the term ‘blasphemy’. The bill also calls for rationalising the criminal procedure, which includes the concept of premeditation or intent.
    One of the most important changes the bill proposes is that it calls for the abolition of the mandatory death penalty.
    Another amendment proposed proposes that the complainant take full responsibility if the accusations levelled by him are proven to be false.
    Published in The Express Tribune, December 1st, 2010.
    http://tribune.com.pk/story/84133/blasphemy-laws-58-of-women-booked-are-muslims/

  • ISLAMABAD: The Blasphemy Law is discriminatory and is being used as a tool by individuals to avenge their personal disputes. This consensus was reached by speakers at a seminar titled “The Blasphemy Laws, A call for Review”, organised by Jinnah Institute on Tuesday. They said ever since the introduction of Article 295, 295-A, B and C, not only were minorities being victimised, even Muslims had to flee the country on numerous occasions.
    The speakers urged the government to review various clauses of the Blasphemy Law and called for an objective resolution on the subject.
    Members of civil society, religious scholars, lawyers, NGO representatives and the Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, attended the seminar and discussed amendments to the Blasphemy Law in light of the recent Aasia Bibi case.
    The bill submitted in the National Assembly by Sherry Rehman, former federal minister, was also under discussion. It seeks to amend the Blasphemy Laws, sections 295A-C and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and the Code of Criminal Procedure (CCP) as amended under General Zia. The bill intends to ensure that all citizens of Pakistan have an equal right to constitutional protection and that miscarriages of justice in the name of blasphemy are avoided at all costs.
    Sherry Rehman said that as the law currently stands, the definition of the term blasphemy is vague, yet it carries a mandatory death sentence under section 295C.
    “It is essential not only to remove the teeth and infamous use of the Blasphemy Laws but to understand the way forward for our society, as minorities remain the most exploited members,” she said.
    President Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) Asma Jahangir said that most lawyers in Pakistan are reluctant to defend cases relating to blasphemy charges due to which the accused can easily be convicted.
    She said such laws should be made to protect the religious and fundamental rights of minorities.
    Renowned religious scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamdi was of the view that existing Blasphemy Laws are discriminatory and there is a need to review the loopholes in the laws in accordance with the real teachings of Islam.
    Published in The Express Tribune, December 1st, 2010.

  • ‘Pakistan has taken steps to empower minorities’

    ISLAMABAD: Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti on Friday informed US Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter that the Pakistan government had taken several initiatives to uplift and empower minorities in the country.

    He said that the incumbent government under the leadership of President Asif Ali Zardari had been following the vision of Quaid-e-Azam for a progressive, moderate and a democratic Pakistan. Bhatti told Munter that district interfaith committees being established under the Federal Ministry of Minorities Affairs would promote inter-religious dialogue and harmony at gross-root level among different faiths. The US ambassador while appreciating the steps taken by the government to promote interfaith harmony said that Pak-America relations would be strengthened at all levels.