Pakistan will pay for its fondness for Blasphemy Law

Ashok Bhan
On 28th April, the European Parliament (EP) adopted a resolution condemning Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law and directed its immediate annulment by the country’s parliament.
Highlights of European Parliament’s Joint Resolution
Through the declaration, it was stated that there has been an “alarming increase in accusations of ‘blasphemy ‘(both) online and offline in Pakistan over the past year” with majority of them being directed against “human rights defenders, journalists, artists and the most marginalised people in society.”
The resolution also strongly rejected the reported statement by Pakistan’s Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs, Ali Khan, calling for people who commit blasphemy to be beheaded.
By referring to the case of Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, a Pakistani couple who were given death sentence in 2014 for allegedly sending a blasphemous text to a Muslim cleric and are yet to get a hearing for their appeal against the verdict, the lawmakers of Europe detailed the “highly flawed” Pakistan’s Judicial procedures.
The resolution added that “postponement of trials has been a common factor in several cases of people accused of ‘blasphemy’, with judges often suspected of employing these tactics out of reluctance to pass judgments exonerating the accused; whereas those working in Pakistan’s criminal justice system, including lawyers, police, prosecutors and judges, are often prevented from carrying out their jobs effectively, impartially and free of fear; with even witnesses and the families of victims have had to go into hiding, fearing retaliatory action”
Since, cases related to blasphemy have historically required low standards of evidence for conviction and the accused who are often presumed guilty have to prove their innocence; it should be thus observed as neglect of Article 4 of the Pakistani Constitution that guarantees equal treatment before law to each of its citizens. Furthermore, Article 10A which defines it as the state’s duty to provide for the right of fair trial seems to be ridiculed at in this regard.
Though, Pakistan has benefited tremendously from trade preferences under the European Union’s (EU) Generalised Schemes of Preferences (GSP+) Programme since 2014, Islamabad’s disregard to honour 27 international conventions that form part of the GSP+ such as commitments to guarantee human rights and religious freedom is crystal clear.
Even in its last GSP+ assessment of Pakistan of 10 February 2020, the Commission expressed a variety of serious concerns on the human rights situation in the country, notably the lack of progress in limiting the scope and implementation of the death penalty.
From 2006 to 2016, EU28 imports from Pakistan have almost doubled from €3,319 to €6,273 million. The growth of imports from Pakistan has been particularly fast since the award of GSP Plus (€5,515 million in 2014).
According to the latest data, Pakistan’s exports to the EU in 2018-19 stayed at $7.936 billion while the import stood at $5.478 billion whereas the export to France in 2018-19 was at $400 million. However, in 2019-20, the country’s exports to the EU were at $7.477 million and the imports stood at $4.167 million.
Besides loosing business with EU Pakistan is bound to be put on the black list-of Financial Action Task Force (FATF).-Unless :
-Pakistan dismantles terrorism ,religious intolerance and oppression qua the religious minorities.-
-Roll back the draconian blasphemy laws as demanded by EU resolution, till such time Pakistan will always be seen and characterised as a terroriststan by the international community .
EP, therefore called upon the Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) to “immediately review Pakistan’s eligibility for GSP+ status” in the current turn of events and if there is sufficient plausible ground to temporarily withdraw the status from Islamabad along with the benefits that it entailed.
In addition to, repealment of sections 295-B and C of Pakistan Penal Code which deal with blasphemy towards Quran and Prophet Muhammad with punishment being life imprisonment and death penalty respectively. Imran Khan led government was also asked to reform the 1997 Anti-Terrorism Act to ensure that blasphemy cases are not tried in anti-terrorism courts, and to ensure opportunities for bail to be granted in alleged blasphemy cases are adequately provided.
Pakistan’s Response
Following a meeting chaired with his cabinet, Prime minister Imran Khan conveyed the country’s rebuttal of EP’s resolution by announcing to stick with their age old blasphemy laws. Doing so, Islamabad has once again disregarded international call for ensuring a better quality of life for all its citizens including the religious minorities.
The foreign ministry released an official statement expressing their displeasure over the adoption of the joint resolution by EP saying, “it reflects a lack of understanding in the context of blasphemy laws and associated religious sensitivities in Pakistan…..and in the wider Muslim world.” Pakistan has further argued that the country has only signed 8 agreements with the EU out of which none is related to religion.
Even though none of the signed agreements deal explicitly with religious matters, they nevertheless, include human freedom, enforced disappearances, women rights as well as minority rights; all greatly overlapping with the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.
Interestingly, it has been noted that Pakistani government has been pragmatic enough to realise the cost of temporarily losing the GSP+ status in their meeting; which could approximately be $3 billion per year. This would imply a great stress on the country’s economy which is already reeling under debt mainly due to delays in its ambitious China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Despite, being aware of the economic loss which the country would have to face Pakistan’s prompt refusal to comply with EP’s directive suggest nothing but gloomy days ahead for the country which can now only pray for a change of heart among the Members of European Parliament (MEP).
Trajectory of Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan
Though, Pakistan adopted an Islamic Constitution in 1956 making Islam the official religion of the State, it was only in the early 1980s, with the military government of General Zia-ul Haq at helm when the colonial era Blasphemy laws were given a pro-Islamic connation in the true sense.
This period also witnessed another crucial development in the religious-legal sphere and this was the denial of the Muslim character to Ahmadi Muslims. Flouting the same could mean imprisonment up to 3 years under the Section 298-C, of the Pakistan Penal Code.
The “offences” committed by those accused of blasphemy during the last decade in the country range from being as bizarre as throwing a business card into the bin just because that card belonged to a man named Holi Prophet Muhammad to spelling errors, naming of a child, the design of a place of worship, burning a (non-religious) talisman or sharing a picture on social media.
According to Centre for Social Justice in Pakistan, at least 1,855 people have been charged under the blasphemy laws between 1987 and February 2021, with the highest number of accusations taking place in 2020.
Several cases dealing with blasphemy have had gained international appeal largely due to the incapability of the Judiciary to act in a fair manner.
The case of Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, one which has been mentioned in EP’s declaration is the embodiment of gross violations across judiciary, legislative and executive of the country.
Having been behind bars in separate cells for more than half a decade they still continue to wait for their appeal to be heard before court as it was most recently postponed on 15th February 2021.
The case becomes perplexing when the illiterate couple who can barely write in Urdu have been charged with sending blasphemous text to cleric in English. The couple maintain that the phone was stolen a month before the incident happen but to deaf ears of the Pakistani Police.
In July 2020, Tahir Ahmed Naseem, an American citizen was shot multiple times at close range as he had appeared to be part of trial. This had showcased embarrassing loop-holes in the country’s security framework of its courts specifically. The incident had also drawn flak from United States which said, “We urge Pakistan to take immediate action and pursue reforms that will prevent such a shameful tragedy from happening again.”
Surprisingly as well as shockingly, the Center for Social Justice (CSJ), a minority rights organisation, has claimed that out of the 200 blasphemy cases which were reported in 2020 at least 150 or 75 per cent of the accused were Muslims showcasing a new trend. This data validates the statement made in the resolution saying, “Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are increasingly used for personal or political scoresettling”.
Way Ahead
India should diplomatically avail this scenario to corner Pakistan and expose its dubious manner of dealing with its own religious minorities on the international stage. It is imperative to strike a broad consensus that the local orthodox Islamist groups in the Pakistan that continue to generate a fervent response against the French provide safe heavens for the terrorist that then spill across borders.
It is therefore in the interest of global peace and harmony that Pakistan should be put on the black-list of Financial Action Task Force (FATF) so as to curb terrorism and ensure ushering of peace in the country as well as in the South Asian region. And it will only be in such a situation that the idea of abolishing Blasphemy laws could be seriously deliberated by the political leadership of the country without the mingling of Islamist terrorist groups.
(The author is Senior Advocate,Supreme Court of India, Distinguished Fellow USI-And; A Geo-Political Analyst)