Protecting Religion or Proscribing Expression? Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law

A small band of Pakistani Christians and supporters protest against the use of blasphemy laws in Pakistan as an excuse for the persecution of minorities. Photo by helen.2006 (2009).

Defamation of the Prophet Muhammad in Pakistan is punishable by death, under the state’s blasphemy law. As a State Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Pakistan is bound to respect and ensure civil and political rights, including one’s opinions. However, in January 2011, the Pakistani government charged a seventeen-year-old student for scribbling derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad on an exam. The police have refused to report what Muhammad Samiullah wrote because doing so would also be “blasphemous.”

The blasphemy law was added to Article 295-C of Pakistan’s criminal code in 1986, after General Zia-ul-Haq introduced the Islamic Sharīʿah legal code. Blasphemy is defined as the act of speaking sacrilegiously of a religious leader or things sacred to a religion. Pakistan’s blasphemy law mandates the death penalty or life imprisonment for those who defame the Prophet. Hundreds of people have been charged under the law since its inception, even for merely disrespectful indirect insinuations.

Pakistan signed and is bound by the ICCPR in 2008, but has made several key reservations, including to two articles relevant to alleged religious defamation. Article 18 authorizes the right to freedom of thought and religion and Article 19 allows one to hold opinions without interference. Pakistan rejected these provisions insofar as they conflict with Pakistani and Sharīʿah law. Furthermore, Pakistan is not a party to the ICCPR’s Optional Protocol, which would subject Pakistan to the jurisdiction of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council. Because Pakistan refused to be fully bound by the ICCPR’s freedom of expression standards or the Human Rights Council’s enforcement mechanism, challenging the blasphemy law will be very difficult from the international law perspective.

However, the application of the blasphemy law also appears discriminatory because prosecutions tend to specifically target members of religions other than Islam. Articles 26 and 27 of the ICCPR are fully binding on Pakistan. Article 26 calls for states parties to treat all persons as equal before the law and prohibits discrimination based on religion or opinion. Additionally, Article 27 specifically protects the right of minority religions to practice.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, the blasphemy law only protects Islam, and as a result, Christians and Ahmadiyya — Muslims who do not believe Muhammad was the final prophet — have come under attack. A 2010 Freedom House report notes that while Christians and Ahmadiyya make up only two percent of the population, they represent nearly half of the more than 900 prosecutions for blasphemy. For instance, in November 2010, a Christian mother of five was sentenced to death for criticizing Islam to a group of female farmhands. This is the first time that a woman has been convicted under the blasphemy law.

Fortunately, death sentences under the blasphemy law are almost universally overturned or commuted on appeal, and no one in Pakistan has yet been put to death under the blasphemy law. However, opponents of the blasphemy law have expressed uneasiness with the death penalty even being an option. Their uneasiness grew in November 2010, when a member of the conservative Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) tabled and ended discussion on a bill that would prohibit death sentences for blasphemy convictions. Even though no one has been put to death under the blasphemy law, opposition parties and judges who have pardoned the convicted have been killed in reaction to their decisions.

Also, under pressure from the PPP leadership and after death threats from various sources, former Minister Sherry Rehman withdrew efforts to complete a draft amendment to the blasphemy law. According to Rehman, Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani refused to allow Parliament to even discuss the amendment proscribing the death penalty and disbanded the committee to amend laws.

On March 24, 2011, the UN Human Rights Council adopted Resolution A/HRC/16/L.38 “Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief.” The non-binding Resolution encourages states to combat religious discrimination without limiting freedom of expression. Pakistan is directly addressed in the Resolution, and the Council recently interviewed some individuals negatively affected by the blasphemy law before the Resolution was adopted.

Pakistan is free to make reservations when it accedes to international human rights instruments, but it is clear that further efforts need to be made to protect freedom of religion and speech in Pakistan. In order to do so, Pakistan could rescind its reservations to the ICCPR and become party to the Optional Protocol. Otherwise, the protection of one view of one religion is likely to continue to take priority over the protection of individual rights.

Leave a Comment