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.

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John McDonnell praises New Labour as he enters conciliatory mode

The shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present by crediting the 1997 government. 

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, John McDonnell has been on a mission to reinvent himself as a kinder, gentler politician. He hasn’t always succeeded. In July, the shadow chancellor declared of rebel MPs: “As plotters they were fucking useless”.

But in his Labour conference speech, Corbyn’s closest ally was firmly in conciliatory mode. McDonnell thanked Owen Smith for his part in defeating the Personal Independence Payment cuts. He praised Caroline Flint, with whom he has clashed, for her amendment to the financial bill on corporate tax transparency. Jonathan Reynolds, who will soon return to the frontbench, was credited for the “patriots pay their taxes” campaign (the latter two not mentioned in the original text).

McDonnell’s ecunmenicism didn’t end here. The 1997 Labour government, against which he and Corbyn so often defined themselves, was praised for its introduction of the minimum wage (though McDonnell couldn’t quite bring himself to mention Tony Blair). Promising a “real Living Wage” of around £10 per hour, the shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present. Though he couldn’t resist adding some red water as he closed: “In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it's called socialism. Solidarity!”

As a rebuke to those who accuse him of seeking power in the party, not the country, McDonnell spoke relentlessly of what the next Labour “government” would do. He promised a £250bn National Investment Bank, a “Right to Own” for employees, the repeal of the Trade Union Act and declared himself “interested” in the potential of a Universal Basic Income. It was a decidedly wonkish speech, free of the attack lines and jokes that others serve up.

One of the more striking passages was on McDonnell’s personal story (a recurring feature of Labour speeches since Sadiq Khan’s mayoral victory). “I was born in the city [Liverpool], not far from here,” he recalled. “My dad was a Liverpool docker and my mum was a cleaner who then served behind the counter at British Homes Stores for 30 years. I was part of the 1960's generation.  We lived in what sociological studies have described as some of the worst housing conditions that exist within this country. We just called it home.”

In his peroration, he declared: “In the birthplace of John Lennon, it falls to us to inspire people to imagine.” Most Labour MPs believe that a government led by Corbyn and McDonnell will remain just that: imaginary. “You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one,” the shadow chancellor could have countered. With his praise for New Labour, he began the work of forging his party’s own brotherhood of man.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.