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2 October 2012

Could this be the beginning of the end for Pakistan’s blasphemy laws?

A positive move by local police after a Hindu temple was attacked.

By Samira Shackle

Most people have heard of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Carrying the death penalty of life imprisonment for anyone who criticises the Prophet Muhammed or the Qur’an, it gained renewed international scrutiny this year after Rimsha Masih, a young Christian girl apparently suffering from Down’s Syndrome, was arrested in Islamabad. She was subsequently freed and a Muslim cleric now stands accused of fabricating evidence against her.

While it was highly unusual that she was freed at all – alleged blasphemers are rarely let off, and even if they are released, are at high risk of vigilante justice – the jumped up charges against her were less so. As I wrote last year, the light burden of proof means that the law is frequently used as a weapon against Pakistan’s religious minorities:

“Hardly any evidence is required – the accuser can even refuse to repeat the blasphemy in court for fear of committing the crime himself – and so the law is frequently used as a means of settling personal scores or stirring up sectarian tension.”

But could that be changing? Here in Karachi, protests against the anti-Islam film that have caused rallies across the Muslim world turned violent. One of the incidents on 21 September was an attack on a Hindu Temple on the outskirts of the city. Protesters attacked the Sri Krishna Ram temple, breaking religious statues, tearing up the Bhagavad Gita (the holy book), and assaulting the temple’s caretaker.

Community leaders took the unusual step of going to the police, who have announced that the case against nine attackers has been registered under Section 295-A of the blasphemy laws. This lesser known section, which covers the “outraging of religious feelings”, can apply to any religion and carries a fine or imprisonment of up to 10 years.

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Of course, this case does not represent a sea-change in attitudes just yet. For a start, no one has been charged, or even arrested. But it was a positive move by local police, if only because Pakistan’s religious minorities are frequently too frightened to speak out at all. Numbering about four per cent of the population, this small minority of Christians, Hindus and Islamic sects such as the Ahmadis (regarded as non-Muslims) translates to nearly ten million people, the equivalent of the population of Tunisia. It is not an insignificant number.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has offered measured support for the move, with the chair, Zohra Yusuf, saying that she has never heard of another blasphemy case registered against Muslims for damaging a house of worship. However, she pointed out that blasphemy laws are never used when Ahmadi houses of worship are attacked, as the often are. Four attacks on churches in Karachi earlier this year have also gone unpunished.

But the potential application of the blasphemy law against Muslims and in defence of a minority faith is an interesting development. Past events have put paid to any political appetite to change or scrap the law. Last year, two ministers who criticised it were assassinated, with the reform shelved soon afterwards, and it retains mass support. If the law is not going to be eliminated or modified (which looks extremely unlikely), it could at least be made fairer in its application. Anything that reduces its power as a hammer with which to beat minorities is a step in the right direction, however modest.