With the tides of religious intolerance striking the globe with utmost audacity, countries like Pakistan have come under the scanner for their deplorable state of human rights as a result of religious violence. In this context, the blasphemy laws in Pakistan have again caught the attention of the international community, which are being used as a tool to target minorities in Pakistan. This has led to a surge in the award of death penalties in the recent times which, as evidence suggests, have often been politically motivated. As a result, grave human rights violations are being committed against minority sects and religions at the behest of Islamabad.
In order to bring attention to these violations and regressive policies in Pakistan, our organization, Red Lantern Analytica, has written a letter to the appropriate individuals and organizations, namely- Mr. Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief; Mrs. Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Opinion and Expression; Ms. Alena Douhan, UN Special Rapporteur on the Negative Impact of Unilateral Coercive Measures on the Enjoyment of Human Rights; and Dr. Fernand de Varennes, UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues. Through our demands to them (stated later in this document), we have called for strict action to be taken against Pakistan.
Recently on January 9, 2021, Dawn reported that three people in Pakistan have been awarded the death penalty under the blasphemy laws of Pakistan. Rana Nouman Rafaqat and Abdul Waheed were accused of disseminating blasphemous content on social media via fake profiles, while Nasir Ahmad was accused of posting blasphemous videos on YouTube. Despite disallowing the accused to produce witnesses for the reason of them being blood relatives, the Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) under Judge Raja Jawad Abbas convicted the three accused of blasphemy and awarded them death penalties, in proceedings spread over a span of three years.
Such reports of the accused being granted death penalties under the controversial blasphemy laws (Section 295 (B) and 295 (C) Pakistan Penal Code) in Pakistan have become a frequent phenomenon. This letter has been written to draw your attention to the blatant violation of the fundamental rights of freedom of speech, thought, information, and religion guaranteed by the Constitution of Pakistan under Articles 19 and 20. Moreover, evidence suggests that these death penalties, in several instances, have been politically motivated which involves the abuse of blasphemy laws under the Pakistan Penal Code.
Recent years have seen a surge in awarding death penalties in Pakistan for blasphemy. In 2019, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) published its key findings and recommendations on the abuse of blasphemy laws to award death penalties to the accused in Pakistan.
This document highlights various cases wherein people in Pakistan have been awarded the death penalty under blasphemy laws. For example, academic Junaid Hafeez was awarded the death penalty after spending 5 years in solitary confinement for blasphemy. The report also points out the lengthy process of trials in such cases and the creation of “a culture of impunity for violent attacks following accusations”. In this particular regard, in March 2019, Professor Khalid Hameed was murdered by a student over alleged anti-Islam remarks.
In 2020, Reuters reported that a Christian man by the name of Asif Pervaiz was sentenced to death for sending derogatory messages against the Prophet Muhammad. Asif Pervaiz had contended that he was being forced to convert to Islam by his supervisor and that the charge against him was fabricated.
The problem of the abuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan is two-fold. The first issue is the abuse of these laws for politically motivated executions. This issue has been corroborated by the facts stated herein already. However, the second issue is a complex one that demands closer study and in fact, a stronger consideration given its gravity.
This issue pertains to the ‘blasphemy legislation’ that exists in Pakistan. The USCIRF published yet another policy update titled ‘Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law’ in October 2019 which highlights how Pakistan’s “blasphemy law remains a key challenge to ensuring religious freedom for the country’s religious minorities”. It traces the origins of the law to the blasphemy laws of colonial India, which were carried forward by the Pakistani government after Partition in 1947, and were later tightened under the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.
The blasphemy laws in Pakistan find their teeth from Section 295 (C) of the Pakistan Penal Code which provides for the death penalty to any person who ‘defiles the sacred name of the Prophet’. Using this draconian law, the authorities have undertaken a high number of executions. The National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCPJ) reports that at least 1400 people have been accused of blasphemy in Pakistan between 1987 and 2018. Moreover, the USCIRF report on blasphemy also states that it is aware of at least 80 people who are imprisoned for blasphemy in Pakistan, out of which half remain either on death row or life imprisonment. Such high numbers of death penalties being awarded by Pakistani courts go on to prove the extent of the abuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan.
This highlights an even more challenging problem of the ‘existence’ of such laws in Pakistan itself.
The Constitution of Pakistan guarantees certain fundamental rights to its citizens, such as the freedom of speech, thought, information, and religion. The blasphemy laws under the Penal Code violate these very fundamental rights in the crudest possible way, leading to grave, state-sponsored human rights violations.
Furthermore, these violations extend to the sphere of international law as well. The International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which was ratified by Pakistan in 2010, provides that the death penalty can only be awarded only in the most serious of cases. Thus, the fact that Pakistan is still operating under a law that provides for the death penalty for blasphemy, itself places it in direct contravention of ICCPR. In specific terms, Pakistan has violated the following provisions of the ICCPR, namely- article 2(1), article 5(1): discrimination on the basis of religion or belief; article 6: right to life; article 18(2): freedom from coercion; article 19: freedom of opinion and expression; article 20: incitement for racial/religious discrimination, violence or hostility; and article 27: rights of minorities.
It would be worthy to note here that Pakistan was also elected recently to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for a two-year term from 2021-2023. Its election received flak from countries, parliamentarians, academia, and civil society organizations alike, given Islamabad’s dismal human rights record. The USCIRF report mentioned earlier also demanded the US government to redesignate Pakistan as “a country of particular concern” for its abuse of blasphemy laws.
Such decisions and judgments by Pakistani courts have led to widespread human rights violations, especially the minority communities in Pakistan, such as the Ahmadis (considered to be non-Muslims in Pakistan), Shia Muslims, Christians, and Hindus. At the same time, these blasphemy laws have been abused to persecute Muslim academics who dare to expose the misdeeds of the Pakistani government.
Numerous calls have been made (including the USCIRF) for Pakistan to repeal its blasphemy laws, but without any success. The USCIRF 2019 report mentioned earlier also states that the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan also goes on to support and defend the blasphemy laws, referring to one of his campaign speeches from 2018 in Islamabad. Pakistan’s then Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated in 2011 for being a critic of blasphemy laws. This fact goes on to show the regressive temperaments for blasphemy laws in Pakistan that extend not just to the public alone, but the head of state as well. It further highlights the obstacles that lay ahead in the fight to repeal these laws.
This evidence clearly establishes the deplorable state of blasphemy laws in Pakistan which has resulted in politically motivated death penalties and targeting of minorities. In this regard, Red Lantern Analytica, in their letter, have urged the abovementioned individuals and organizations to despatch a fact-finding mission to Pakistan to identify the exact number and nature of such death penalty convictions; impose sanctions on Pakistan for violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it has ratified; call a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and pressurize Pakistan to repeal its blasphemy laws; ensure that the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) takes suo moto cognizance of the issue and constitute a special committee to investigate the matter (the committee may include the following as its members: Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; Special Rapporteur on the Negative Impact of Unilateral Coercive Measures on the Enjoyment of Human Rights; and Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity); and ensure that the Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity intervenes in the issue and seek clarification from Pakistan.
.Given all the evidence, the Special Rapporteurs of the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) addressed in the letter should take prompt and strict actions against Pakistan.