Last month, the Lahore High Court (LHC) acquitted a Christian couple, Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Masih, who were on death row since 2014 for allegedly sending blasphemous text messages to a fellow Muslim. The couple was handed the death sentence by a trial court in Toba Tek Singh on April 4, 2014, under Section 295-C of the PPC. The LHC released the couple citing lack of evidence. Human rights bodies and advocates hailed the decision coming in unusual circumstances but questioned the judicial system that kept the innocent couple behind bars for over seven years.
Over the last two years, the hearing of the appeal before the high court was adjourned several times. The case recently attracted the attention of the international community after some EU parliamentarians took up this matter. On April 29, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for a review of trade relations with Pakistan linking it with Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, in particular the case of Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel.
This is not the first time members of a minority community have been acquitted after being absolved of blasphemy charges by higher courts. Last year, the LHC also acquitted a Christian, Sawan Masih, who had been handed death sentence on blasphemy charges in March 2014 and the incident led to torching of more than 100 houses at Joseph Colony, a Christian-dominated neighborhood in Lahore. Masih spent 6 years in a badly managed prison in the country before being declared innocent.
And who could forget the 2018 acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, who was acquitted after spending more than eight years in prison. The then Punjab Governor Salman Taseer spoke in favor of Asia and desired to stop misuse of blasphemy laws for which he was killed by his own bodyguard who thought the Governor had committed blasphemy.
Only months later, a federal minister, Shehbaz Bhatti, was shot dead by the Pakistan Taliban for the same reason. In a concerted move to forestall public unrest, Pakistani electronic media underplayed the Asia Bibi story but that didn’t work either. Asia’s acquittal sparked countrywide protests by the hardliner Barelivi religious clerics led by Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party which kept major cities besieged for several days. Eventually, the sitting government had to strike a deal with firebrand TLP but they knocked back intermittently forcing authorities to adhere to their range of demands. Although the incumbent government has banned the TLP, critics believe that the party is still operative and poses a serious threat to the lives of minorities.
Rights group says Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are too broad, vague, and coercive and enable abuse. They are also said to violate Pakistan’s international legal obligations to respect and protect human rights, including freedom of religion. The laws have often been used to even out revenge after personal disputes, and that convictions are based on thin evidence.
Since 1990, at least 65 people have reportedly been killed in Pakistan over claims of blasphemy. There are currently about 80 convicts on death row or are serving life imprisonment in Pakistan for committing blasphemy, according to the US Commission for International Religious Freedom. Reacting to the Christian couple’s acquittal by the LHC, Amnesty International’s South Asia deputy director Dinushika Dissanayake said “Blasphemy cases in Pakistan are often premised on flimsy evidence in environments that make fair trials impossible”.
Interestingly, the blasphemy laws are inherited from British colonial rulers who introduced these draconian laws in 1860 to stop Hindu-Muslim violence. After partition in 1947, blasphemy laws underwent to several changes especially during the dictator Zia ul Haq’s era who added 5 new clauses all specific to Islam and criminalizing offences such as defiling the Holy Quran or insulting Prophet Muhammad. It is since then that the cases related to blasphemy have skyrocketed.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) — a voluntary organisation — over 1500 people have been accused under various clauses of the blasphemy law between1987 and 2018. Blasphemy cases are often used as a tool to settle grudges or even out personal scores against an opponent while the claimant walks free even if courts, at some point, acquit the accused. Also, in most cases, the blasphemy cases are settled outside the court either through a violent mob or via smear campaigns directed against the accused.
Pakistan is already seen with disdain by the world when it comes to religious freedom or free speech. The increasing intolerance and mob justice is further tarnishing the country’s image. The misuse of blasphemy laws not only risks lives of the accused but it endangers lives of lawyers defending the accused, judges who acquit wrongfully accused and human rights advocates who raise voice against this injustice.
This maltreatment of the minorities and misuse of the blasphemy laws against the minorities must be stopped.