Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) MNA Sherry Rehman has called for urgent amendments to the Blasphemy Laws, lending her support to Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death under this ‘contentious’ law, says a press release.
While the stay order from the Lahore High Court is a welcome development, there are still lacunae in the present laws which enable minorities and vulnerable citizens to be targeted without fear of reprimand for false accusations.
Sherry submitted a private members bill in the National Assembly Secretariat calling for an end to the death penalty for blasphemy, and will chair a Roundtable Conference today (Tuesday) regarding amendments to these laws.
Strong opposition to these proposals is already being voiced by ‘extremist’ factions. Sherry Rehman is President of the Jinnah Institute, which will hold the Roundtable Conference today to engage academics, lawyers and other members of civil society in an open discussion on the amendments to the Blasphemy Laws. The conference will highlight the recent case of Aasia Bibi and the blatant abuse of the legislation in bringing false claims against members of minority communities.
The discussants will include Asma Jahangir (President Supreme Court Bar Association), Hina Jilani (General Secretary, HRCP), Anis Haroon (Chair NCSW), Shahbaz Bhatti (Minister for Minorities Affairs), Ali Dayan Hasan (Human Rights Activist and Board of Advisors, Jinnah Institute), Dr. Khalid Masood (Former Chairman, Council of Islamic Ideology), Prof Ghaamdi (religious scholar) and Ashiq Masih (husband of Aasia Bibi).
The Blasphemy Laws as set out in the Pakistan Penal Code (sections 295 and 298) find their roots in Colonial Law and have in their present form become a source of victimisation and persecution of the minorities in the country. The amendments to the Blasphemy Laws is intended to ensure that all citizens of Pakistan have an equal right to constitutional protection and that miscarriages of justice in the name of blasphemy are avoided at all costs.
The bill amends both the Pakistan Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure, the two main sources of criminal law. The aim is to amend the Codes to ensure protection of Pakistan’s minorities and vulnerable citizens, who routinely face judgments and verdicts at the lower courts where mob pressure is often mobilised to obtain a conviction.
The definition of the term ‘blasphemy’ is currently vague, yet it carries a mandatory death sentence. Also, there are serious problems with the mechanisms to implement this law. The bill will rationalise the punishments prescribed for offences relating to religion provided under section 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code.
The most important changes the bill proposes are the abolition of the mandatory death penalty and life sentence on Section 295 C, introduced by General Ziaul Haq.
It calls for rationalising the criminal procedure, which includes the concept of premeditation or intent. This means that anyone accused of blasphemy must be shown to have intent of committing the crime. The penalties for other offences related to religion will be reduced so that punishments are proportionate and any incentive to use these laws to settle scores is removed.
Another amendment proposed ensures that a sessions court takes cognisance of offences made under sections 295A-C so that the complainant takes full responsibility of the consequences in case the accusations are false or frivolous. Complaints under these sections must subsequently be tried by the High Court, because trials by High Courts are likely to strengthen the possibility for justice.
Sherry Rehman considers that “it should be the aim of a just society, as enshrined in our Constitution and Islam, to try all such cases at the High Courts which are always under a higher degree of public scrutiny.”
Important additions to the legislation include section 203A, which will ensure that “anyone making false or frivolous accusation under any of the sections 295A-C of the PPC shall be punished in accordance with similar punishments prescribed in the section under which the false accusation was made.” This should not only act as a deterrent for those intending to make false claims but also penalise those complainants who use the law for vendettas and settling scores. Similarly, a new section 298E has been added. This makes any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination or violence an offence.