Notorious blasphemy laws have a significant impact on minority communities in Pakistan. Particularly their right to life, freedom of speech and freedom of religion as enshrined in Pakistan’s constitution and the universal declaration of human rights.
Blasphemy is the act of insulting, showing contempt or lack of reverence for God or that which is considered sacred. The British introduced laws criminalizing blasphemy in the Indian subcontinent. These remained a part of the law when Pakistan became an independent country in 1947. In 1987, General Zia ul Haq ‘Islamised’ the blasphemy laws as part of a widespread policy of Islamisation. The blasphemy laws are now enshrined in section 295 A, B and C of the Pakistan Penal Code, with their focus being on protecting Islam. Although the Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that the blasphemy laws protect all religions, in practice law enforcement agencies and the public interpret these sections as only protecting Islam.
Presently, Pakistan uses this controversial law at a level incomparable to anywhere else in the world. The law has had a disproportionate impact on minority communities. There have been 702 cases registered against minorities, which equates to 52% of total cases against 4% of the population of Pakistan. The laws are routinely used to target religious minorities for personal or political motives, and result in a violation of fundamental rights. This is evident in the cases of Aasia Bibi and Rimsha Masih discussed below. Blasphemy laws and this treatment of minorities are contrary to rights guaranteed in Pakistan’s constitution, particularly the right to profess religion (article 20), equality of citizens (article 25) and protection of minorities (article 36).
In 2010 Aasia Bibi, the first Christian women to have faced such a punishment, was sentenced to death by hanging on a charge of blasphemy. Her crime was offering water to Muslim men in agricultural fields where they worked. They refused the water because it was given by a Christian. When she protested against this practice and defended the sanctity of her religion, she was accused of blasphemy. In defending Christianity, she had apparently insulted Islam. Her right to life (article 3), right to freedom of religion (article 18) and right to freedom of expression (article 19) as per the universal declaration of human rights had been violated in this one incident. It has been a life-changing incident for her – she remains in prison; her life and those of her families continue to be in danger.
In 2012, Rimsha Masih, a 12 year old girl suffering from Down’s syndrome, was accused of blasphemy. She was the first female child to face a blasphemy accusation. She was accused of burning pages of the Quran – an act of which there was no proof. On 20 November 2012 the Islamabad High Court acquitted Rimsha because of a lack of evidence and a lack of mens rea (intention) to commit such a crime. Despite this, she and her families lives were in danger, forcing her to emigrate to Canada. Pakistan simply could not provide her with the protection she needed. It is not just Rimsha Masih. Many members of minority communities particularly Hindus, are leaving for safer lands. Between January 2013 and June 2014, 3,753 Pakistanis surrendered their passports and obtained long-term visas for India. The state continues to fail to provide protection to its religious minority communities.
Pakistan is amongst the most dangerous countries for minorities and one of the top countries with increases in threats to minorities since 2007. The fundamental rights of minority communities are frequently violated, with a major cause being blasphemy accusations and the violence that surrounds these. The law continues to perpetuate an environment of intolerance and discrimination. To guarantee equal treatment and fundamental rights to minorities in Pakistan, an attempt to reform the blasphemy laws must be made. Without this, the state will never be able to achieve peace, tolerance and equal human rights.