Constitutional protection

March 3, 2024

The recent disinformation campaign against superior judiciary is condemnable

Constitutional  protection


 recent campaign levelling baseless allegations against the superior judiciary has reignited debate on issues such as the freedom of expression and protection of religious minorities. Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa is known for his principled stance on judicial independence and rule of law. Such accusations against him and other members of a bench that heard a bail case have been condemned by a majority in the legal fraternity as well as human rights defenders.

The apex court ordered the release of an Ahmadi man who had been accused of disseminating literature related to the Ahmadi faith. This was described by some people as amounting to blasphemy. The Ahmadiyya community was declared non-Muslim through the Second Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan in 1974.

The apex court’s latest ruling focused on defending the constitutional rights of religious minorities, including Ahmadis, to freedom of religion and belief. The court emphasised that every citizen should have the right to profess, practice and propagate their religion. The court pointed out that the book allegedly distributed by the accused had not been outlawed at the time of the alleged crime in 2019. The court cited the constitutional provision that “every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion,” underscoring the principle of religious freedom as a fundamental tenet of Islam.

Despite the constitutional protection of religious freedom, the ruling drew a severe backlash from certain segments of the society, including threats and a campaign against the apex court. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan supported the ruling, stating it protected the constitutional right of all religious minorities to freedom of religion and belief. Despite the backlash, the apex court defended its ruling, stating that it did not go against the constitution and calling the campaign against the judiciary and judges unfortunate.

Blasphemy is a highly sensitive issue in Pakistan. Such accusations can lead to violent repercussions and social ostracisation. The laws criminalising blasphemy and providing harsh punishments for it have been criticised by human rights groups for being misused for personal vendettas and to suppress dissent and minority rights. The latest allegations against the apex court appear to be part of a broad pattern of using blasphemy accusations to target individuals in positions of influence or those who advocate for legal and social reforms. The details of the allegations, including specific statements or actions that were deemed blasphemous, are not clear from the information provided. However, such accusations against high-ranking judicial officers underscore the tense relationship between religious laws and the judiciary’s independence in Pakistan.

Cases involving the acquittal of individuals accused of blasphemy, particularly from religious minorities such as the Ahmadiyya (often referred to as Ahmadis), represent highly sensitive legal and social issues in Pakistan. The legal framework governing blasphemy in Pakistan is primarily found in Sections 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). These laws make blasphemy a criminal offense, with penalties ranging from fines to death.

The Ahmadiyya community has faced significant persecution due to their religious beliefs, which are considered heretical by the mainstream. Since the enactment of specific constitutional amendments and laws in the 1970s and 1980s, Ahmadis have been declared non-Muslims and restricted in their religious practices and expressions.

The latest allegations against the apex court appear to be part of a broad pattern of using blasphemy accusations to target individuals in positions of influence or those who advocate for legal and social reform.

One of the most notable acquittals by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in a blasphemy case was that of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was accused of blasphemy in 2009. The Supreme Court of Pakistan overturned her death sentence in 2018. Justice Saqib Nisar, the former chief justice of Pakistan stated that the prosecution had failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. The ruling was praised by rights activists and civil society groups as a step towards justice and religious harmony. The verdict was described as historic, demonstrating that the judiciary could protect the rights of the most vulnerable segments of society despite considerable pressure and threats from hardliners.

Asia Bibi’s case was a test for Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which have been criticised for being misused to settle personal disputes and target religious minorities. Despite the acquittal by Supreme Court, the case revealed the dangers faced by those accused of blasphemy, including the potential for mob violence and the challenges of ensuring safety and justice for the accused and their families.

However, acquittals in blasphemy cases involving Ahmadis, are relatively rare and often not widely reported due to the sensitivity of the issue and the potential for backlash against those acquitted, their legal representatives and the judges. However, there have been instances where higher courts, including the SC, have overturned convictions on appeal, often citing lack of evidence or flaws in the application of the law.

A significant aspect of blasphemy cases in Pakistan, including those involving Ahmadis, is the pressure from some religious groups on the legal process, which can influence the outcomes of cases at both the trial and appellate levels. Furthermore, those accused of blasphemy, regardless of the eventual outcome, often face societal ostracization; threats to their safety; and in some cases, violence.

Given the sensitivity and potential for misuse of blasphemy laws, there is a need for careful handling of blasphemy cases to ensure that they are not used as tools for political or personal gain. The recent events are a stark reminder of the delicate balance between upholding religious laws and protecting individual rights and freedoms within the judicial system.

This is not to say nevertheless, that the state of affairs is unique to Pakistan. Many other countries struggle to maintain the fine balance between upholding religious sentiments and maintaining freedoms for minorities. Judges in Indonesia handling blasphemy cases have faced public criticism and pressure from religious groups, although direct threats against judges are less common than in Pakistan. The case of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), a Christian former governor of Jakarta convicted of blasphemy, showcased the intense public and political pressures involved in such trials.

In Egypt, where blasphemy laws are used to protect the “sanctity of religions”, legal professionals and judges dealing with blasphemy cases can become the focus of public scrutiny. While direct threats against the judiciary are rare, the social and political climate surrounding such cases can be highly charged, influencing the legal process and outcomes.

In Nigeria’s northern states, where religious law is applied alongside the secular legal system, accusations of blasphemy can lead to deadly violence. Judges in these regions must navigate complex legal, religious and social dynamics, especially when handling cases that could incite public unrest.

The writer is an advocate of the High Court, a founding partner at Lex Mercatoria, and a visiting teacher at Bahria  University’s Law Department. She can be reached at

Constitutional protection