British activist warns that stricter statutes will make it harder for innocent victims.
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A recent move to make Pakistan’s so-called blasphemy laws stricter will make it easier to convict innocent people, including religious minorities, says a British Pakistani Christian organization.
“The additional hardening of laws will make it only easier to convict innocent people,” said Juliet Chowdhry, Trustee for the British Asian Christian Association.
The organization says that Christians suffer “severe persecution” in Pakistan, and any tightening of blasphemy laws are likely to impact them.
The laws already provide the death penalty for anyone who offends Islam. Now, Pakistan’s National Assembly raised the minimum prison sentence to 10 years for anyone who insults the wives, companions, and family members of the Prophet Mohammed. Formerly, the maximum was three years.
The amendment to article 298 of the penal code also provides for a 1 million rupee fine – about $4,500.
“The blasphemy laws of Pakistan have been a tool for discrimination and persecution since being Islamized in the 1980s,” Chowdhry said in a statement. “From 1860 when the British introduced the first blasphemy law till 1985, only 10 blasphemy cases were registered. However, from 1986-2015, 633 cases had been registered and in 2020 alone 199 cases, illustrating how the laws have been weaponized.”
Christians, she said, make up an “unhealthy percentage of blasphemy convicts and spend longer periods incarcerated than other victims of these draconian laws.”
[In photo above, Islamist activists carry placards in 2018 against Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who recently had been released after spending eight years on death row for blasphemy.]
Need for safeguards
In comments emailed to Aleteia, Chowdhry said that if the blasphemy laws cannot be done away with – and that looks unlikely for the time being – safeguards should be put in place.
“While the laws continue to sharpen in favor of the extremists, we pursue changes to the existing system that allow the laws to be misused,” she said. “Police authorities arrest the accused on the merest accusation, often are bribed by Muslim leaders and generally allow their own bigotry to direct proceedings. It is disgraceful that police authorities across Pakistan still stand by and watch while Muslim mobs burn and loot Christian homes at an accusation of blasphemy.”
Chowdhry charged that the judicial system is set up in such a way that the accused begins at a disadvantage. “Judges can take holidays when they want, postpone hearings endlessly when prosecution solicitors do not attend and simply have no desire to make a just decision, till the accused has spent many years in prison,” she said.
She added that every time a court reaches a decision-making stage, the judge changes and the whole process begins again. “It’s a diabolical and intentional design that seeks to destroy the souls of victims,” she said.
Meanwhile, those who have committed perjury in bringing false charges or those involved in mob attacks are never convicted, Chowdhry said.
Even on social media, a threat exists that a person could be prosecuted for blasphemy, according to AsiaNews. Under the 2016 Electronic Crime Prevention Act, complaints can be made for liking, commenting or forwarding content seen to be blasphemous.
“Primarily the government should repeal all blasphemy laws,” Chowdhry said. “Failing that, serious amendment is required.”