The Federal Shariat Court (FSC) in Pakistan has ordered the government to remove the option of life imprisonment as a punishment for the crime of blasphemy. The FSC decided that it was un-Islamic for anyone found guilty of the crime of blasphemy to receive anything but a death sentence for their crime. Many Christians and other religious minorities fear this “reform,” because they are disproportionately accused of blasphemy by Pakistan’s majority Sunni Muslim population. Often, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are abused to eliminate rivals and persecute religious minorities. Many Christians now fear that false blasphemy accusations have become more deadly.
12/11/2013 Pakistan (Daily Times) – The issue of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws has always been alive in public discourse and an attraction for the media not only in Pakistan but internationally too. Now, it will reverberate even more through the corridors of power after the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) ordered the Pakistan government to remove the option of life imprisonment for blasphemy. This means that crimes of blasphemy will be punished exclusively by the death sentence. The court, which has the power to determine whether any law is un-Islamic, reasons that any punishment other than death for blasphemy is not lawful.
This was the conclusion of a five-member bench headed by Justice Fida Hussain, which was formed to explore this question after a contempt of court petition was filed by lawyer Hashmat Habib on December 4, 2013. The bench based this conclusion on a previous decision by the court in 1990 determining that life imprisonment should be deleted on the grounds that any blasphemy act is not acceptable and the blasphemer is liable to be punished by death.
Habib’s complaint was that the 1990 decision had not been implemented and so the court should now issue orders to rectify this, as well as initiate court proceedings against those who have hitherto failed to implement the decision. Coincidentally it was Ismail Qureshi, another lawyer and writer of the book Blasphemy Law (in Urdu), who submitted a petition to the court to remove the alternative punishment of life imprisonment. The court ruled in October 1990 that the alternative punishment should be deleted as it was repugnant to Islam and the government was directed to add a provision to the effect that any act of blasphemy upon other prophets should also be punishable by death.
The government was told to amend Section 295-C by April 30, 1991. The government actually tried to file an appeal against the court’s verdict but it was withdrawn because Qureshi and some other people had met the then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and requested him to withdraw the appeal.
Sharia courts were constituted in 1979 by Ziaul Haq and were a part of his programme to Islamise the country and its laws. Nawaz, who is considered his protégé, unfortunately continued Zia’s policies and passed sharia laws in 1990. Nawaz Sharif has, for the third time, become prime minister and has recently taken to office. His government is already facing many challenges — the main challenges being terrorism and the economy — but political crises are imminent as the head of the PTI, Imran Khan, has already blocked NATO supplies and even threatened that if his government is dismissed Sharif’s government will go too.
The situation seems quite complex internally as pressure could come from religious and extremist groups because the PML-N has close ties with extremist groups, especially in Punjab. This pressure could also come from the opposition and from the sharia court too, while externally Pakistan is already facing a lot of pressure from the west.
On Maplecroft’s Human Rights Risk Index 2013, Pakistan is ranked number five on the extremist list. On December 3, 2013, the British House of Commons debated about the persecution of Christians. Several MPs, including the ex-foreign minister responsible for Pakistan, Mr Alistair Burt, and Rehman Chishti also took part. Rehman said, “I come from a Muslim background and my father was an imam (religious leader). When I saw that the topic was ‘Persecution of Christians in the 21st century’, I knew that it was absolutely right and proper to have a debate on that subject. It is important for the world to realise that persecution goes on. The blasphemy law is at the root of much suffering and persecution of Christians in Pakistan. The use and abuse of this law is the fundamental issue underpinning discrimination and open violence against Christians and local churches.”
After years of struggling by many, a final decision is going to be made by the EU on December 10, which is also International Human Rights Day, about granting the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) Plus status to Pakistan. If this happens, it will be a real boost to the Pakistani economy but it is dependent on the improvement of human rights and the situation of minorities. According to some reports, Pakistan has a moratorium on the death penalty only because of the GSP Plus decision and the aid programmes it is dependent on.
On the same day as the debate in the British Houses of Parliament on blasphemy, a delegation from the Church of Scotland, headed by Moderator Lorna Hood, met with Pakistani High Commissioner Wajid Shamsul Hassan, and raised their concerns about the misuse of blasphemy laws. All the attention being paid by the international community to the human rights situation in Pakistan, and the calls for improvement, are apparently having little effect as it was just one day after the concerns of the British MPs and the Church of Scotland were raised that the FSC sent a strong message to the world in the opposite direction on human rights.
It is said that Nawaz Sharif is a changed politician, and that he learned a lot during his exile in Saudi Arabia. Now is the time for him to prove it. If he does not implement the order of the sharia court, the court and extremists will bear down on him to make him do it. Yet, if he does implement this order, then how is he going to face pressure from the international community to improve Pakistan’s human rights record? Whatever he does, it has far reaching consequences for his government and for the country.