LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – Compliance with an order that only the death sentence can be given to those convicted of insulting Islam’s prophet will further endanger Christians and increase the powers of the Islamic court that issued it, critics said.
While Christians fear that government compliance with the Federal Shariat Court’s (FSC) Dec. 4 order to remove life imprisonment as a punishment for insulting Muhammad could usher in a new era of persecution, some critics say the greater concern is that it could broaden the powers of the controversial court.
Section 295-C of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws calls for either death or life imprisonment for persons convicted of insulting Muhammad. The FSC has given the government a “couple of months” to implement, through parliament, the order to remove life imprisonment as a possible punishment.
The FSC order comes less than three years after assassinations of two government officials silenced most criticism of the blasphemy laws.
While the ruling could further encourage extremists to attack those they believe are insulting Muhammad, the FSC order may have little specific legal impact since judges have tended to issue death penalty sentences for such convictions anyway, according to Yasser Latif Hamdani, who practices law in superior courts.
“This is a guideline that the courts have already followed,” Hamdani told Morning Star News. “The problem is that it has symbolic significance. It opens the door for the Federal Shariat Court to exercise greater influence on the legal system. Will the FSC also rule that insanity is not a defense?”
Hamdani said he hoped that the order would land before the Supreme Court’s Shariat Appellate Bench, “which may take a more positive and liberal view,” he said.
Attorney Shoaib Salim of the Lahore High Court also expressed hope that it could be reversed.
“The FSC is only empowered to examine and determine whether the laws of the country comply with sharia [Islamic law] or not,” Salim said. “The ultimate decision rests with the parliament.”
He said it was unlikely that the government would implement an order that would further incite religious hatred and persecution in Pakistani society. The blasphemy laws have been routinely abused to settle personal vendettas as antagonists can easily level false accusations that ruin lives.
Since its establishment in 1980, the FSC has been the subject of criticism and controversy. Created as an Islamization measure by the military regime of Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul Haq, and subsequently protected under the controversial 8th Amendment, the FSC has opponents who question its existence and usefulness. Comprising eight Muslim judges, including three required to be Islamic law scholars (Ulema), the court exercises jurisdiction over criminal courts deciding Hudood cases, which involve punishments prescribed by Islamic writings.
Critics say the FSC merely duplicates the functions of superior courts and contravenes the authority of parliament. They allege that the way its judges are appointed and retained is tainted, and that the court does not fully meet criterion for an independent judiciary.
The FSC’s decisions are binding on high courts as well as on subordinate judiciary. Appeals against its decisions lie with the Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court, consisting of three Muslim judges of the Supreme Court and two Islamic scholars appointed by the president.
Misuse of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan has long been debated, but the assassination of two top government officials and a senior judge in the last decade and a half has silenced even the most vocal critics.
Former Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer’s own police bodyguard gunned him down on Jan. 4, 2011 for calling for a review of the blasphemy laws and giving moral support to a woman sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy. Two months later, on March 2 of that year, Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated in Islamabad; members of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility. He had faced threats on his life for voicing opposition to the blasphemy laws.
The Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali, former Lord Bishop of Rochester, United Kingdom, and current president of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue, said the FSC verdict is a cause of concern for Pakistani Christians.
“Everyone knows how the blasphemy laws are misused in this country,” Dr. Nazir-Ali, on a visit to Pakistan, told Morning Star News. “During several of our engagements with the Pakistani government, we have repeatedly asked them to deal with blasphemy cases with utmost care and consideration to ensure that there’s no miscarriage of justice. No blasphemy case should be registered without proper investigation at the highest government level regardless of whether the accused is a Christian or of another faith.”
Islamist Clerics Defiant
Pakistan’s top Islamist clerics, meantime, have not only pushed for greater FSC powers but declared that they will not tolerate any amendments to the blasphemy laws.
A few days after nearly 150 Christian homes were burned to the ground in March by violent Muslim mobs in Lahore’s Joseph Colony over allegations that a Christian youth had insulted Muhammad, top Sunni Islamist clerics led by Ruet-e-Hilal Committee Chairman Mufti Muneebur Rehman recommended that all persons accused of blasphemy should be tried by the FSC.
The clerics also opposed the imposition of penalty for the accusers in such cases, arguing that no punishment existed for falsehood in other cases. Mufti Muneeb also demanded that defamation of sacred religious personalities should be declared a crime under international law.
Punishment for false witness does have some advocates. After much lobbying, in September Pakistan Ulema Council Chairman Allama Tahir Ashrafi strove to make the country’s top religious body, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), recommend the death sentence for those making false blasphemy accusations. Ashrafi believes that such a law was necessary as a deterrent.
Hardliners in the CII, however, shot down Ashrafi’s initiative.
“I have been relentlessly protesting the misuse of the blasphemy laws,” Ashrafi said. “This is not only bringing a bad name to Pakistan but also the entire Muslim Ummah [community]. It’s a pity that the other religious leaders failed to understand the importance of a strong deterrent for false accusers. Those making a false accusation needed to face death penalty because the words attributed to the accused were actually uttered by the accuser.”
CII Chairman Maulana Muhammad Khan Sheerani said a majority of the CII members believed there was no need to amend the blasphemy laws.
“We don’t want to discourage people from coming forward and lodging complaints against blasphemers,” he said. “There’s already a law – Section 194 of the Pakistan Penal Code – which envisages punishments for lodging a false FIR.”
Sheerani, who believes the FSC order removing life in prison for those convicted under Section 295-C was in line with Islamic injunctions, said the FSC was the right forum to decide blasphemy cases.
“Laws relating to Islam should be decided by the FSC,” he said. “Our senior clerics have already recommended that such cases be decided within three months. If the suspect is found innocent, the false accuser can be tried under the relevant section of the PPC [Pakistan Penal Code],” he said.
Napolean Qayyum, a Christian rights activist, said the ruling would usher in a new era of persecution.
“We have seen people taking the law into their own hands and deciding for themselves what the punishment should be,” Qayyum said. “This ruling will only embolden elements who use the blasphemy laws to target the weak and marginalized communities of this country. How many more innocent lives would it take for the government to realize that it needs to do something to bring an end to this victimization?”
Attorney Aneeqa Maria, head of Christian rights group The Voice Society, told Morning Star News that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have no standards for evidence or for proof of intent, even though intent must be shown for a conviction, as well as no procedural safeguards to penalize those who make false allegations.
“They are a constant sword hanging over our heads, and no government has so far been able to stop their blatant misuse,” Maria said. “Everyone knows how these laws are used as a tool for settling personal disputes, and now the FSC has taken this skeleton out of the closet after so many years. I believe this would encourage the accusers to try and get their victims implicated under Section 295-C.”