In November there were widespread anti-blasphemy protests in Islamabad and other cities in reaction to proposed changes to an election law. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
Blasphemy is a very sensitive topic in Pakistan and has often led to riots, like these in November in Islamabad. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

Pakistan’s Senate Special Committee on Human Rights has recommended that those who falsely accuse someone of blasphemy should receive the same punishment as those convicted of blasphemy.

The Committee also said registration of a blasphemy case should include a minimum of two witnesses who support the charges.

Right-wing political parties like Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (F) have protested against any changes, but Senator Farhatullah Babar said: “We are not trying to make any changes to the blasphemy law; we are trying to keep people from misusing it.”

The Senate’s recommendations now have to be ratified by the Council of Islamic Ideology – a body that advises the government on whether proposed legislation is in accordance with Islamic law.

Mufti Abdul Sattar, a member of the Senate Human Rights Committee who is also part of Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (F), told Asia Times“We have the power to disrupt elections in the country if we find that the rulers are involved in hatching a conspiracy to undo the blasphemy law or alter the Islamic identity of the state.”

Settling personal scores

The Islamabad High Court had referred the case to the Senate’s Committee in October last year, suggesting they “make the blasphemy law tougher”. The law has often been misused to settle personal scores, while procedural “loopholes” have also led to the filing of false charges, as happened in the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row for blasphemy since 2010.

Pakistan has the most stringent blasphemy laws in the world, and they have been used disproportionately against religious minorities – Pakistani Christians make up only 1.5 per cent of the total population, but over a quarter (187) of the 702 blasphemy cases registered between 1990 and 2014 were against Christians.

On Friday (9 March), Rwadari Tehreek, a Pakistani inter-faith movement for tolerance, held a hunger strike in protest against misuse of the country’s blasphemy laws. Religious leaders, as well as representatives of civil society groups, joined the gathering in front of the Punjab Assembly – in the provincial capital, Lahore. The group called on the government to investigate and bring to justice those involved with the arrest of Patras Masih for alleged blasphemy, as well as the alleged torture of his cousin Sajid Masih.

‘Systematically persecuted’

Meanwhile a group of women activists raised the issue of Christian persecution and misuse of the blasphemy law in Pakistan during the 37th session of the Human Rights Council, of which Pakistan is a member, in Geneva.

Shazia Khokhar, a Christian woman activist from Pakistan who now lives in Switzerland, during a side event on Monday (12 March), said: “In Pakistan, once an individual is accused of blasphemy, he is presumed guilty and the law fails to safeguard against people willing to use violence. Blasphemy law also creates an atmosphere of religious intolerance and has contributed to the institutionalisation of discrimination against religious minorities.”

She added: “The name ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan’ is a complete official name of a country where religious minorities are systematically persecuted.”

Another Pakistani Christian woman, Salma Bhatti, raised the issues of kidnapping, conversion and forced marriages of young women, saying: “There are many young Christian girls in Pakistan who are being kidnapped and forcibly married. Later, there are no whereabouts of these women.”