Pakistan's blasphemy law is untouchable
Published 02/03/2011 | 13:46
Any hope of repealing Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws to give greater protection to its religious minorities has evaporated following Shahbaz Bhatti's assassination, the head of the country's Human Rights Commission has said.
Syed Shamsuddin, co-ordinator of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said the government had abandoned those campaigning for minority rights and betrayed its duty to protect all of its citizens.
The prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani had ruled out any reforms in January after Punjab governor Salman Taseer was shot dead by his bodyguard over his campaign to free a Christian woman sentenced to hang for making derogatory comments about the Prophet Mohammad and to repeal the blasphemy law under which she was convicted.
The government was shaken by the level of public support for his killer, Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri, which ranged from middle class lawyers to conservative political leaders who said Mr Taseer was to blame for his own death.
Their support for the murder was attacked by Bilawal Bhutto, the son of President Zardari and the late Benazir Bhutto in a speech to the Pakistan high Commission in London. Those who supported murder were themselves "covert blasphemers," he said.
Despite his intervention, human rights campaigners said the government has betrayed those working to promote tolerance in Pakistan.
"All those working for a tolerant society are in retreat because there's no support from the government. People are very scared. It's the state's responsibility to protect people. They have failed to do that," said Mr Shamsuddin.
The blasphemy laws make it a capital offence for anyone to make "derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet." The laws have their origin in the Indian Penal Code under British colonial rule, and were introduced to prevent communal conflicts and protect places of worships for all religions.
But under General Zia ul Haq's military dictatorship in the 1980s, the laws were amended to focus on derogatory comments against the Prophet Mohammed and the death penalty was introduced for those found guilty.
Since then more than 600 have been accused of blasphemy and many have been jailed, though no-one has yet been executed.
According to Mr Shamsuddin, the law leaves the country's tiny Christian, Sikh, Hindu, Parsis and Ahmadi minorities vulnerable to false claims during neighbourhood or business disputes.
"Innocent people are being charged [with blasphemy] by those in conflict with them over property or land disputes. It's easy for someone who wants to kill an enemy. He just has to put a charge of blasphemy to so-called religious persons," he said.