Sacrilegious Laws And Social Hostility
Recently, police booked a nurse Mariyum Lal and a nursing student Newsh Arooj under Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code after the allegation of blasphemy leveled against them while they were on duty at a government hospital in Faisalabad. The police took the nurses in protective custody after a protest demonstration was staged by the health practitioners, religious groups and students that demanded stern legal action against the accused. Although the enraged mob attacked the police mobile van in an attempt to deliver justice on the spot, yet the police managed to secure the nurses from any severe harm.
It has become a practice in Pakistan that blasphemy allegations followed by provocations are made that let the mob gather at the scene of the incident where charged crowd try to take the law into their own hands, despite the strict laws that deal with the desecration of religion. The latest incident is no different as a male student dispenser tried to stab the neck of an accused nurse in the hospital’s ward but she survived the attack due to the breaking of the knife. However, she received injuries to her arms while she was making an attempt to defend the attack.
It is worrisome that Pakistan tops the world with the highest number of reported blasphemy-related cases and mob violence incidents, revealed by USCIRF study. This was verified by Center for Social Justice (CSJ) claiming that the year 2020 witnessed the highest number of 200 reported blasphemy cases against individuals, including 75% Muslims in Pakistan. We have witnessed the emotive power of religion in many incidents where the mere accusation of blasphemy provided a pretext for disruptive public reactions and triggered the horrific violence that left at least 80 individuals with 53% Muslims extra-judicially killed. The accused also included lawyers, politicians, and judges who tried to defend blasphemy accused either in the court or in public. The mob violence against the worship places and community settlements is observed in most of the cases where minorities happen to be the accused. The blasphemy allegation, no matter how faintest it is, fosters an environment of intolerance that leads to social exclusion, as observed at government hospital after the latest case has come to the surface where nurses are reluctant to interact with their counterparts from the minority communities.
It is disquieting to note that Pakistan is one of only four countries in the world, the others being Iran, Brunei, and Mauritania that enforces the death penalty as the maximum sanction for desecration of religion. Although 84 countries of the world with 29.4% states of Asia Pacific region continue to maintain sacrilegious laws in a variety of legal instruments, the punishment to offenses of blasphemy ranges from fines to imprisonment, and even death sentences. The majority of the countries maintain imprisonment as maximum punishment ranging from months to years for blasphemy offense. Five countries including Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan apply fines as punishment only, while punishment such as; compulsory labor in Russia and correctional labor in Kazakhstan and Moldova is applied for committing blasphemy.
Although one-third of the countries across the globe maintain criminal blasphemy laws on the books, however, there are several democratic states including Iceland, Norway, Malta, Denmark, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, Greece, Scotland, and a province in France (Alsace-Moselle) that opted to repeal blasphemy laws during 2016-2020 as they are considered to be inconsistent with the universal human rights standards, failing to respect fundamental rights to freedom of religion and expression.
It is a matter of grave concern that the accusation of blasphemy has become so common in Pakistan, making it easier for the complainants to level allegation against any individual from all fields of life, as almost all publications including; textbooks, newspapers, books, and material of religious processions contain some sort of religious content, which can be misused against any person, one holds grudge against. Most people label the blasphemy accused as guilty, and demand their beheading without proper investigation or trial of the case. The blasphemy accused face difficulty in engaging a lawyer to defend them in court due to fear of intimidation and attacks. The blasphemy allegation instantly put the life, liberty, career and reputation of the accused persons and their families in peril. They end up living in hiding, and are unable to lead a normal life afterward even if they are proven innocent and acquitted by the court.
Apart from social hostility associated with the blasphemy allegation, the honorable courts in Pakistan have given judgments providing relief to the accused which reinforce the impression that the false accusations of blasphemy are often made, misusing sacrilegious laws, to settle personal vendettas or property disputes or religious prejudice. This is contrary with the genuine instances of blasphemy as witnessed in the dozens of killings and violent mob attacks in the wake of blasphemy allegations, proven false in the court. Mostly, the accused persons are deprived of their liberty and are made to spend several years in jail without committing any blasphemous offense. On the other hand, the complainants and witnesses involved in leveling false allegations against the accused often enjoy impunity, and they are not effectively prosecuted for charges of perjury under Section 182 of PPC whose punishment extends to 5-7 years. The provision, if enforced, could help change the mindset and direction of the stakeholders involved and the public about how to respond to such accusations.
The onus is on the police and judiciary to carry out fair investigation and trial in the case of nurses, who are alleged to have committed blasphemy, by prosecuting the complainant and witnesses and verifying if the accusation made is true or false. This is to respect the presumption of innocence, to ascertain the intention of the accused persons, and prove the alleged blasphemous conduct amounts to desecration of religion by any objective standard. Considering the sensitivity involved with blasphemy cases, the government ought to ensure a fair trial by providing protection to the accused and lawyers, so that lawyers are able to perform their duties without intimidation, and the accused persons are not unjustly punished on the basis of mere allegation.