Death Sentence in Pakistan Spotlights Blasphemy Laws As U.N. Votes on ‘Defamation’

Patrick Goodenough | November 23, 2010 | 4:38am EST
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Pakistani Christians and other minorities protest against blasphemy laws and demand Asia Bibi’s release, in Lahore on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

( – International calls for clemency for a Pakistani Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy looked likely to succeed on Tuesday, but similar cases will arise until the country’s controversial blasphemy laws are thrown out, critics say.

President Asif Ali Zardari’s party pledged in its 2008 election platform to review “statutes that discriminate against religious minorities, and are sources of communal disharmony,” but the blasphemy laws – which Islamist parties regard as sacrosanct – remain in force.

The case of the woman known as Asia Bibi came to international attention at a time of growing concern about a push by Islamic states – with Pakistan at the forefront – to have what they term “religious defamation” outlawed at the United Nations.

Those behind the drive say Muslims, Islam and its symbols and prophets need protection, but critics say Islamic states are trying to introduce in Western societies restrictions similar to those enforced in countries like Pakistan.

A U.N. spokeswoman said Monday evening that the General Assembly’s Third Committee will vote on this year’s “religious defamation” resolution on Tuesday, ahead of a final vote by the full assembly next month.

Tuesday’s vote will give an indication of how successful a growing international campaign against the Islamic initiative has been. The text has passed every year since 2005, but the last three years have seen declining support, with the margin of votes dropping from 57 in 2007 to just 19 last year.

Open Doors USA, a Christian organization lobbying against the campaign, said earlier the Asia Bibi case should alert individuals and governments about the serious consequences of passing the resolution.

Asia Bibi, a 45 year-old mother from a village in Punjab province, was sentenced to death on Nov. 8 after being convicted of blasphemy. She had been in custody since June 2009 after Muslim co-workers alleged that she had insulted Islam’s prophet, Mohammed, during an argument in a field where they had been laboring.

According to Human Rights Watch analyst for South Asia Ali Dayan Hasan, the Muslims had refused to accept water offered by Asia Bibi, saying that coming from a non-Muslim it was “unclean.”

“Asia Bibi dared express her outrage at this act of brazen prejudice, maintained that her faith was as good as any and refused to convert to Islam,” Hasan said.

Several days later a frenzied mob led by a local mullah attacked her, and police took her into custody, later bringing criminal charges.

She has denied blaspheming Islam or Mohammed, and Pakistan’s minister for minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, says he believes her to be innocent of the charges.

With black ribbons tied around their wrists, Christians in Pakistan attend a rally against the country’s blasphemy laws in Lahore on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

Following appeals from Pope Benedict XVI and others, the governor of Punjab asked Zardari at the weekend to pardon Asia Bibi.

Gov. Salman Taseer tweeted early Tuesday that he had received a very positive and encouraging response, with the president clearly stating that “Asia will not be punished.”

An Islamic group whose name translates as The World Assembly for the Protection of the Finality of Prophethood plans protests in front of Taseer’s residence on Wednesday, and it threatened to take its demonstrations countrywide if Asia Bibi is pardoned. It also warned the federal government not to touch the blasphemy laws.

Lengthy prison term for touching Qur’an with unwashed hands

The laws in question are contained in section 295 of the Pakistan penal code, dating back to 19th century British rule, which prohibits “injuring or defiling a place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class.”

Sub-sections were added in the 1980s, including one that prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs,” another that specifically deals with insults targeting the Qur’an, and another focusing on insults directed at Mohammed. The death penalty was also introduced as a possible sentence for the “offenses.”

(Another provision, section 298, forbids uttering remarks intended to “wound religious feelings.”)

“The Islamization of Pakistan’s constitution has had devastating consequences for the country’s religious minorities, not least because they exacerbate religious intolerance and fuel unnecessary tension between members of different religions,” says the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), an organization that provides free legal aid to Pakistani Christians.

“Blasphemy charges can be brought against any individual with nothing more than a ‘reliable’ testimony and once made, can lead to immediate and indefinite detention without bail for the accused,” it says.

Last March a Christian couple in Punjab named as Munir Masih and Ruqqiya Bibi were sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment under the blasphemy laws, in their case after being accused of touching a copy of the Qur’an “without washing their hands,” according to CLAAS.

(Many Christians in South Asia use the name “Masih,” which means “Messiah” in Arabic. “Bibi” is an Urdu term meaning “Miss.”)

According to a report by the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a Catholic body, a total of 964 people were charged under the blasphemy laws between 1986 and 2009. Christians, Muslims, Hindus and members of the Ahmadi sect of Islam have been targeted.

While no executions had been carried out, 32 people charged with blasphemy were killed by mobs or individuals angered by the supposed blasphemy, the report said.

A few such cases in Punjab province cited by the Pakistan Christian Congress include:

-- Bantu Masih, stabbed to death in Lahore while in police custody in 1992

-- Naimat Ahmar, a Christian teacher stabbed and killed in front of students in Faisalabad in 1992

-- Manzoor Masih, shot dead in a Lahore court room in 1994

-- Lahore High Court Iqbal Bhatti, murdered in 1997 after acquitting two Christians accused of blasphemy

-- Robert Danish, a Christian youth who died in police custody in Sialkot in 2009 after being arrested for alleged blasphemy

-- Rashid Emmanuel, a pastor, and his brother Sajid Emmanuel, both gunned down last July as they left a Faisalabad court where they faced accusations of distributing pamphlets “disrespectful” to Islam

CLAAS says that people convicted of blasphemy who have had their death sentences overturned often spend years in prison. Even in cases of acquittals, victims have been unable to return to normal lives and frequently go into hiding.

The Pakistan Christian Congress plans to protest in front of U.N. headquarters in New York on Dec. 2 and to present a petition to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urging him to press Islamabad to repeal the laws.

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