December 20, 2016

As good as dead: The impact of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan


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Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are often used against religious minorities and others who are the target of false accusations, while emboldening vigilantes prepared to threaten or kill the accused, a new Amnesty International report says today. 

“There is overwhelming evidence that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws violate human rights and encourage people to take the law into their own hands. Once a person is accused, they become ensnared in a system that offers them few protections, presumes them guilty, and fails to safeguard them against people willing to use violence,” said Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty International’s Director of Global Issues. 

The report, “As good as dead”: The impact of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, shows how people accused of blasphemy face a gruelling struggle to establish their innocence. Even if a person is acquitted of the charges against them and released, usually after long delays, they can still face threats to their life.  

Once an accusation of blasphemy is made, the police can arrest the accused, without even checking to see if the charges make sense. Bowing to public pressure from angry crowds, including religious clerics and their supporters, they frequently pass cases on to prosecutors without scrutinizing the evidence. And once someone is charged, they can be denied bail and face lengthy and unfair trials. 

The threat of violence follows many people accused of blasphemy, with groups or individuals taking the law into their own hands to threaten or kill the accused and other people associated with them, including their lawyers, members of their families, and members of their own community. 

A pall of fear also hangs over those working in Pakistan’s criminal justice system, the report shows, preventing lawyers, police, prosecutors and judges from carrying out their jobs effectively, impartially, and free of fear. 

Amnesty International’s report shows how Pakistan’s blasphemy laws enable abuse and violate the country’s international legal obligations to respect and protect a range of human rights, including freedom of religion or belief and of opinion and expression. It calls for these laws to be repealed and for any new legislation to fully comply with international law and standards. 

The report also details how the laws have been used to target some of the most vulnerable people in society, including children, individuals with mental disabilities, members of religious minorities and the poor. 

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has acknowledged that “the majority of blasphemy cases are based on false accusations” and are driven by ulterior motives. Such motives, the report says, are rarely scrutinized by the authorities and can vary, from professional rivalry, to personal or religious disputes, to seeking economic gain. 

“The cases described in the report uncover the full reality of how the vaguely worded laws lack safeguards and are open to abuse. They favor the complainant, by allowing false accusations, and endanger the accused, by presuming their guilt. Our report outlines a series of measures the authorities should repeal these laws, starting by immediately implementing safeguards to prevent flawed prosecutions,” said Gaughran. 

False accusations against a child with mental disabilities

One of the cases detailed in the report involves Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl with a learning disability who was 14 years old when she was accused of blasphemy by a local cleric who accused her of burning pages of the Qur’an. 

Despite being a child with a mental disability, she was arrested by the police and charged.  

After a three month ordeal in the glare of the media, The Islamabad High Court quashed the charge, noting that she had been falsely implicated without any evidence and that a prosecution would have permitted the courts, themselves, to be used as a tool for ulterior motives. 

Rimsha Masih and her family fled to Canada, where they were given asylum because of the threats they faced. 

A lawyer threatened and killed

Rashid Rehman was a distinguished human rights lawyer, one of the few brave enough to represent people accused of blasphemy in court. 

On May 8, 2014, Rashid Rehman was shot dead in his office by two unidentified gunmen. The day after his murder, a pamphlet was scattered around lawyers’ chambers in the central Pakistani city of Multan, saying that Rashid Rehman met his fate because he had tried to “save a blasphemer”.  

Less than a month before he was killed, Rashid Rehman was threatened in open court. “You will not come to court next time because you will not exist anymore,” he was warned, in front of witnesses. The people who threatened Rashid Rehman were never questioned by the police investigating his murder. 

Before his death, Rashid Rehman once likened defending people accused of blasphemy to “walking into the jaws of death.” Confronted with the high risks involved, many lawyers decline to represent people accused of blasphemy.  

In another case, the family of a person accused of blasphemy struggled to find a lawyer, being repeatedly turned away until they eventually found someone willing to represent them for a high fee. In court, the lawyer was severely beaten in court. He cut contact with the family and abandoned the case. 

A Christian couple killed for money

Shama and Shahzad Masih were a Christian couple who lived with their three children in the Punjabi village of Kot Radha Kishan. Under harsh conditions, they worked long hours at a brick kiln near their home. A typical work day lasted 18 hours. They were paid a mere $6.60 for every thousand bricks they made. 

One day in November 2014, Shama Masih, who was five months pregnant, was disposing her late father-in-law’s belongings by burning them. Without sanitation facilities, this was how many villagers carried out waste disposal. 

Later, a rumor swept the area, alleging that Shama Masih had torched pages of the Qur’an. The allegations were amplified when clerics from nearby villages took to their mosque microphones to demand that the Christian couple “be burned the same way they burned the [holy book].” 

An angry crowd of hundreds swiftly gathered at the brick kiln. They found Shama and Shahzad Masih locked in a small room, where they had been confined by a moneylender who had lent them money, and dragged the couple outside. 

Five policemen were present, but failed to intervene. They said they were outnumbered and faced violence from the unruly crowds. The couple were beaten repeatedly, and then dragged to a furnace at the kiln, where they were dumped inside and burned to death.  

The police arrived later and arrested more than 100 people, according to Shahzad Masih’s family. The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, denounced the murder, and his brother, Chief Minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, visited the village to condole with the couple’s mourning family.  

On November 23, 2016 an anti-terrorism court sentenced five men to death for their involvement in the killing. While Amnesty International calls for accountability and an end to impunity for such crimes, it opposes the death penalty in all cases. 

The authorities’ failure to effectively intervene in this case before the mob turned violent is typical of a pattern across Punjab. The police often know of threats circulating against vulnerable religious minorities, but do not act decisively in the face of a mob roused by angry clerics exhorting murder.