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December 31, 2010

Blasphemy laws


Sumeha Khalid
December 31, 2010

The new minister for religious affairs has made it clear on the floor of the National Assembly that there will be no change in the country’s controversial blasphemy laws that have led to hundreds of people being locked up behind bars and a number sentenced to death. To all rational observers it has become clear over the years that the laws are used more and more to settle all kinds of disagreements, including petty disputes. Some have involved the running of schools, others conflict-of-business interests. In some cases those condemned to jail were mentally unfit, and obviously needed treatment rather than punishment.
If there was any party willing to see all this and take action, one would have thought the PPP to be the most likely candidate. Persons who figure prominently in the party hierarchy, including Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, have made it clear they favour changes in the blasphemy laws. Sherry Rehman, who has played a key role in promulgation of laws with a significant impact on protection of Human Rights, was all set to table a bill seeking amendments to the laws. Many other members of the PPP, a party that stands, at least in theory, for liberal values, could have been expected to favour such a move. But it is clear that principle has no part to play in the conduct of politics and policymaking in our country. It would appear that pressure from the JUI-F and perhaps also other quarters has led the PPP to rethink its position. It seems the desire to stay in power and keep the coalition intact overrides all else. There has also been an element of dichotomy within the PPP. Law Minister Babar Awan, for instance, in contrast to other PPP leaders, has stated on record that the blasphemy laws will never be changed. Such comments can only fill us all with gloom. The president’s position on the matter has been somewhat ambiguous, but he has spoken of granting a pardon to Aasia Bibi, indicating that he sees what’s wrong. Given this background, the

PPP’s stance is especially disturbing. We can only assume the party is caving in to the pressures it faces and, for the sake of power, has thrust aside the ideals it professes. Worse still, it means the laws that have been repeatedly misused to create immense suffering for a very large number of people – many of them, ironically enough, Muslim – are going to remain unchanged for a long time to come.

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