By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*
On December 3, 2021, a violent mob at the Wazirabad Road in Sialkot city (Sialkot District) of Punjab tortured a Sri Lankan national, Priyantha Kumara, to death over blasphemy allegations before burning his body. Kumara was accused of blasphemy for allegedly tearing down stickers of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) from a wall of factory. Kumar was working as a senior manager at a leading Sialkot factory that manufactures and exports sports products,
The last killing of a foreign national on blasphemy allegations was reported on July 29, 2020, when Tahir Naseem, a US citizen and an Ahmadi, was shot dead inside a District Court in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in the presence of security and the presiding judge. A video of the attacker, identified as Faisal Khan, in handcuffs, shouting angrily that his victim as an “enemy of Islam” was posted on various social media platforms. Faisal Khan was taken into custody on the spot.
Meanwhile, in a press release on February 2, 2021, the Lahore-based Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a minority rights organisation, disclosed that, between 1987 and December, 2020, at least 78 people had been killed extra-judicially after allegations related to blasphemy and apostasy, including 42 Muslims, 23 Christians, nine Ahmadis, two Hindus, and two persons whose religious identity could not be ascertained.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least three people have been killed in such violence since the beginning of the current year (data till December 10, 2021). The other two incidents of killing in 2021 include:
July 3: A Police constable, Abdul Qadir, killed Waqas Ahmed with a cleaver over blasphemy allegations in Sadiqabad District of Punjab. The victim was accused of sharing blasphemous content online and was convicted by a court in 2016. However, the Lahore High Court overturned the conviction in 2020, and Waqas was released from prison.
March 24: Taqi Shah, a Shia religious scholar, was axed to death over blasphemy allegations at a local mela (fair) in Basti Murad, Shorkot tehsil (revenue unit), Jhang District, Punjab. A blasphemy case had been registered against the victim in 2019.
Other recent incidents linked to alleged blasphemy included:
November 28, 2021: A mob attacked and set on fire the Mandani Police Station in the Charsadda District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), demanding that authorities hand over a man arrested for allegedly desecrating the Holy Quran. According to Police, the person who had allegedly torched the Holy Quran was apparently mentally deranged and he was immediately taken into custody and shifted to an unknown location. A mob of 3,000-4,000 persons gathered outside the Police station and demanded that officials hand over the man to them. When the Police refused, the mob attacked the Police Station and set it on fire. At least 17 vehicles and motorcycles parked in the Police Station compound were set ablaze and official records were gutted. While Policemen at the station managed to escape, the protesters took away weapons from the Police Station.
November 18, 2021: Four Muslims – a man and his three sons – were charged with blasphemy for arguing with a mosque Imam while requesting him to allow a funeral announcement from the village mosque for a Christian neighbour at Khodi Khushal Singh village under Burki Police Station in Lahore District, Punjab.
August 4, 2021: Hundreds of people vandalised a Hindu temple in the Bhong town of Rahim Yar Khan District in Punjab and blocked the Sukkur-Multan Motorway (M-5). The mob alleged blasphemy by a nine-year old Hindu boy, who they claimed had urinated in a local seminary.
Blasphemy has been used by the government as well as fundamentalists as a weapon to discriminate against minorities in the theocratic state of Pakistan. In the early phase after the birth of the country, there were no legal provisions for blasphemy. Deviations were introduced during the military rule of Zia-ul-Haq (1978-1988) and the most controversial laws, Section 295-B of Pakistan Penal Code, PPC, (blasphemy against the Holy Quran) was introduced in 1982; and Section 295-C, PPC (desecration against Prophet Muhammad) in 1986. The section 295-C read,7, 2010, for blasphemy
Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.
Later, the Federal Sharia Court held in a judgement that life imprisonment was repugnant to Islam, and that, therefore, the death penalty was the only punishment possible for those convicted of blasphemy under 295-C. The Court ruled that if the Government did not delete the words “imprisonment for life” from the statute by April 30, 1991, the Court would consider the change to have been made. On May 1, 1991, the death penalty became mandatory for persons convicted under 295-C. Though a Bill was adopted by the Senate to give effect to the ruling, the National Assembly did not pass the Bill. However, the court’s ruling on the mandatory death penalty remained valid.
According to the CSJ report, between 1987 and 2020, at least 1,855 people have been accused under Blasphemy Laws. 200 of these cases were reported in 2020 alone. Moreover, since 1987, Punjab has recorded the highest proportion of cases of the abuse of Blasphemy Laws, 76 per cent of all cases in the country, followed by Sindh, with 19 per cent.
Among the most high-profile accused was Aasia Bibi, also known as Asia Noreen, a Christian woman from Ittan Wali village in the Sheikhupura District. She was sentenced to death on November 7, 2010, for blasphemy [LINK: SAIR 16.26], allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad during a row with woman neighbours in June 2009. Noreen denied that she had committed blasphemy and asserted that she had been accused by her neighbours to “settle an old score.” On November 7, 2010, Muhammed Naveed Iqbal, a judge at the district Court of Sheikhupura, sentenced her to death by hanging. Additionally, a fine equivalent to USD 1,100 was imposed. On October 31, 2018, Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned the conviction, and Aasia Bibi was released from the New Jail for Women in Multan on November 7, 2018.
In the interim, the then Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who came forward to support Aasia Bibi, was killed [LINK: SAIR 9.27] by his own security guard, Mumtaz Qadri on January 4, 2011. Qadri was reportedly incensed by the Governor’s denunciation of the blasphemy law, as also his advocacy for Aasia Bibi. Taseer had demanded the removal of the mandatory death penalty on conviction. Subsequently, on March 2, 2011, unidentified assailants killed [LINK: SAIR 9.35] the then Federal Minorities Affairs Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, another outspoken critic of the law.
Significantly, most of the blasphemy cases are found to be false. On June 3, 2021, the Lahore High Court (LHC) acquitted a Christian couple – Shafqat Emmanuel, the watchman of a school in Gojra tehsil of Toba Tek Singh District in Punjab, and his wife Shagufta Masih – who had been sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy. The High Court noted that the prosecution had failed to establish the case and that the trial court had decided the case in “a slipshod manner.” The couple was arrested in July 2013 on the charges of sending blasphemous text messages to the complainants, shopkeeper Malik Mohammad Hussain and Gojra tehsil Bar Association former president Anwar Mansoor Goraya. In April 2014, the couple was sentenced to death for blasphemy and fined PKR 100,000 each by an additional district and sessions judge in Toba Tek Singh District.
On April 28, 2021, just before the acquittal of the Christian couple, the European Union (EU) Parliament discussed the situation of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, focusing especially on this specific case. It adopted a resolution in which it expressed concern at the continuous abuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan which exacerbated existing religious divisions and the prevailing climate of religious intolerance, violence and discrimination. The resolution stressed that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were not in line with international human rights laws, and were increasingly used to target vulnerable minorities in Pakistan. The resolution demanded that Pakistan allow space for religious freedom and urged EU authorities to review the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) Plus status for Pakistan. 681 members of the EU parliament voted in favour of the resolution while only three opposed it. The GSP is a set of EU rules allowing exporters from developing countries to pay less or no duties on their exports to the EU.
Meanwhile, on December 7, 2021, under increased international pressure, more so after the ghastly killing Priyantha Kumara, Prime Minister Imran Khan declared that “from now on” the government would not allow the misuse of religion or name of Prophet Mohammad. He declared,
I have decided that from now on if anyone uses the religion, especially in the name of Rehmatul-lil-Alameen Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to commit injustice, we will not spare them.
Interestingly, the same Imran Khan Government succumbed to the pressure of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the group which came into existence at the grave of Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Punjab’s former Governor, Salman Taseer. After taking the nation hostage with mass protests and violence during the month of October 2021, TLP forced the Government to lift the ban against it on November 10, 2021 and managed to secure the release of its Chief Hafiz Saad Hussain Rizvi from jail on November 18. With violent action against blasphemy as an essential element of its principal agenda, TLP is readying itself for the upcoming general elections.
Pakistan is one of 13 countries where blasphemy is punishable by death. While no one has been hanged under the law, many have lost their lives to vengeful mobs, even after the Courts have dismissed charges against them. Where the state is, itself, complicit in creating an atmosphere of enveloping hatred, it is not the law alone that is at fault.
*Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management