What the laws say

Chapter XV of Pakistan’s Penal Code, titled “Of Offences Relating to Religion,” contains six sections. Four of them outlaw a number of acts, ranging from tresspassing on places of worship to “malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings,” with penalties ranging from one to 10 years in prison, plus fines.

Two other sections, however, specifically address Islam. Section 295B forbids desecration of the Quran. The penalty is a mandatory life sentence.

Section 295C forbids insults to “the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad.” The minimum penalty is a mandatory life sentence; the maximum penalty is death. In 1990, Pakistan’s Federal Shariah Court ruled that the death penalty should be mandatory. Created in 1980, the Shariah court decides whether civil laws are “repugnant to the Injunctions of Islam.”

Impact of the laws

No one has been executed under Section 295C. Most of those who are accused eventually are freed on appeal, often to face mob justice. More than 50 people have been murdered in extrajudicial killings. Two prominent Pakistani politicians were assassinated in 2010 after they spoke publicly in defense of Aasiya Noreen, who had been charged under Section 295C. In May 2014, human rights lawyer Rashid Rehman was murdered after he took up the defense of a teacher accused of blasphemy.

Lower courts often are reluctant to decide cases out of fear that acquittal will provoke mob violence.

Where the laws come from

The original blasphemy law dates back to 1860, during Britain’s colonial rule over the multicultural Indian subcontinent. It was intended to prevent Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs from using provocative religious language against each other. The law was expanded in 1927, prior to the 1947 partition that created Pakistan.

In the 60 years following 1927, a handful of blasphemy charges were filed in Pakistan. During the military rule of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, president from 1978-1988, the law was expanded in several steps to protect the Sunni version of Islam. Since Haq’s rule, thousands of blasphemy cases have been lodged.

Though Christians and other religious minorities make up only about 4 percent of the country’s overwhelmingly Muslim population, they account for about half of the people charged with blasphemy. Critics point to this as evidence that the anti-blasphemy laws are tools of intimidation to settle personal scores that use religion as a pretext.

What others say

The anti-blasphemy laws are regularly rebuked by human-rights organizations and governments:

The U.S. Commission on International Regligious Freedom, an advisory body to the U.S. Congress

The country’s blasphemy laws . . . target members of religious minority communities and dissenting Muslims.

There is no clear definition of blasphemy, which empowers the accuser to decide if a blasphemous act has occurred. No proof of intent is required, nor must evidence be presented after allegations are made.

Source: 2015 annual report

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

The law has been a potent tool in the hands of extremist elements to victimise minority and vulnerable communities.

Source: 2011 report

All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief (UK)

The overall impact of these laws, has been deeply disturbing and regrettable; not only have they produced a culture of religious intolerance, bigotry and fanaticism, they also deter any form of rational and tolerant expression on matters pertaining to religion.

Lower courts judges are also easily intimidated by violent extremists, leading to few defendants being released on bail or acquitted, some trials even being delayed indefinitely, for fear of reprisal and vigilantism.

[O]ther state bodies such as the police are fearful, prejudiced and often incompetent in cases of blasphemy.

Source: 2016 draft report

Amnesty International

Ahmadis, Hindus and Christians remained at serious risk of violence and intimidation on the basis of their religious beliefs. There were at least 79 attacks on Shi’a Muslims – the most for any religious group in the country. Religious minorities were disproportionately represented in incidents where private individuals sought to invoke Pakistan’s vaguely formulated blasphemy laws.

Source: 2013 annual report