The Kafkaesque reality of Pakistan's blasphemy laws

Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, is under police investigation for alleged blasphemy after making the case on television for the law to be re-examined and for the death penalty to be removed.

In Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial, the protagonist Josef K. is unexpectedly arrested by two unidentified agents from an unspecified agency for an unspecified crime. For the duration of the story, neither Josef nor the reader knows what he is supposed to have done, even when he is eventually killed for his crime.

The situation surrounding Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws is not dissimilar. The law means that anyone found guilty of defaming the Prophet Muhammed can be sentenced to death. Many facing such accusations have been forced into hiding or killed by mobs before they even stand trial.

Blasphemy laws in and of themselves are not unusual: many countries across the world have legislation which restricts what one can say about religion. The problem in Pakistan comes from the exceptionally harsh penalties, and the light burden of proof. The law sets out no guidance on what constitutes blasphemy, no standards for evidence, no requirement to prove intent, and no safeguards to punish those who make false allegations. This means that, essentially, the standard for blasphemy is whatever offends the accuser. As such, it is frequently used to persecute minorities or settle personal vendettas.

Witnesses can refuse to repeat the alleged blasphemy in court, in case they themselves become culpable. There have been stories of judges refusing to hear evidence defending the accused for fear of offending religious zealots. Blasphemy is a non-compoundable crime, meaning that cases cannot be settled out of court. Once a charge is filed, it is difficult for the case to be quashed, and the accuser cannot simply drop charges. It is not unthinkable that someone could be accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death without ever being told exactly what they are meant to have said and thus being unable to disprove it. Suddenly, Kafka’s Josef F doesn’t seem quite so surreal.

That blasphemy laws are a serious impediment to freedom of speech goes without saying. But the extent to which this is true has been highlighted yet again in recent days, with the news on 21 February that Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, is under police investigation over allegations of blasphemy.

The basic facts of the case are as follows. In late 2010, before Rehman had been posted to the US, she lodged a private members' bill seeking to abolish the death penalty for blasphemy after Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, was sentenced to death. Two other politicians who were campaigning for a change to the law were murdered soon afterwards. Salman Taseer was shot in January 2011, and Shahbaz Batti in March 2011. Blasphemy reform was shelved soon afterwards.

On 30 November 2010, before Rehman’s private members' bill had been thrown out, she appeared on Dunya TV’s news programme, Dunya Meray Aagay. She repeated her calls for the law to be re-examined and for the death penalty to be removed. Remarks she made on the show prompted Muhammad Faheem Akhtar Gill, a marble dealer in Multan, to lobby police to register a case against her for blasphemy. After nearly three years of persuasion, his efforts have been successful, and the police have started an investigation under the orders of the Supreme Court. Given the aforementioned problems with the blasphemy legislation, the media cannot report what Rehman is supposed to have said, in case newspapers fall foul of the law. People are clearly curious: a Google search for “Sherry Rehman - what did she say” yields 21,800 results.

That a lawmaker should face a criminal investigation for discussing a parliamentary matter is, once again, Kafkaesque. The law of parliamentary privilege applies in Pakistan. It gives members of parliament legal immunity for actions done or statements made in the course of their legislative duties. The idea underpinning this law is that parliamentary business shouldn’t be impeded by restrictions on free speech. In the United Kingdom, where libel laws are the biggest drag on free speech, MPs cannot be censured for defamatory statements made while they are in the Houses of Parliament. Given that blasphemy laws are arguably the most significant restriction on free speech in Pakistan, it would not be unreasonable to expect a similar immunity.

Of course, parliamentary privilege covers lawmakers while they are actually in parliament – and when Rehman was speaking to Dunya TV, she clearly was not in the parliament building. But the fundamental fact remains: the blasphemy reform bill was passing through the legislature and a lawmaker is now facing charges for discussing it. A crucial part of a functioning democracy is the ability to openly and publicly debate significant legislative changes before they are passed into the statute book. If proposed legal changes cannot be openly discussed without politicians facing prosecution, it has serious ramifications for the very functioning of the Pakistani state. It is the public that will suffer if laws and policies can’t be debated and scrutinised.

The blasphemy law has created and facilitated a culture of vigilantism. As soon as someone has been accused of blasphemy, they live under the threat of death. When the young Christian girl Rimsha Masih was falsely accused of blasphemy last year, her family was forced into hiding. According to the Islamabad-based Centre for Security Studies, at least 52 people accused of blasphemy have been killed since 1990. Many die at the hands of angry mobs before they are convicted. Given this high threat of violence, it is perhaps unsurprising that politicians are afraid to touch blasphemy law.

In Pakistan, as in my countries across the world, those who shout the loudest end up wielding the most power. Unfortunately, extremist or conservative elements are more than capable of invoking religion to stir up mass outrage and violence. There is no doubt that this has had a chilling effect on free speech across the board; campaigners working in areas from women’s rights to internet censorship can find themselves dismissed as blasphemers or immoral people, and facing the associated backlash.

Politicians should not be above the law (a particularly sore point given recent corruption allegations), but nor should they be penalised for doing their jobs. A situation where the reform of a particular law cannot be discussed in case the discussion itself breaks that law is worthy of a Kafka story, but not of a healthy and functioning state.

 

Sherry Rehman, who was appointed Pakistan's ambassador to the US on 23 November 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.