2-16-2011By Pamela Takiff
Advisor, Fighting Discrimination Program
Mumtaz Hussein Qadri, the bodyguard and alleged killer of Pakistani Governor Salman Taseer, was charged with murder this week in an antiterrorism court. Qadri openly admits to assassinating the Governor in January because of his opposition to the country’s abusive blasphemy laws and stated that he found justification for his act under Islamic law. Outside the court house, followers of Qadri assembled to show their support, bearing flowers and cards, and to remind the Pakistani government that any efforts to amend the blasphemy laws will not be tolerated.
Since Governor Taseer’s assassination, police officers investigating the case have been threatened, as have lawyers representing the state. Those who had hoped to organize public events to honor Governor Taseer were “advised against it” and decrees were issued against offering funeral prayers or even expressing regret over his killing. Meanwhile, Qadri has been treated like a hero (watch this Reuters clip of him being showered with rose petals). Rallies and demonstrations have been organized to offer support for him and to express outrage over discussions to amend the blasphemy laws that impose a death sentence for insulting Islam.
As a result of intense pressure, extremists have been able to successfully squash the blasphemy debate. The government has stated that the blasphemy laws will not be touched. Prime Minister Gilani—once a proponent of examining the laws—has now said such a review would occur “over my dead body.” A “Day of Thanksgiving” has been scheduled for this Friday to celebrate the various groups’ success in silencing calls to amend the current blasphemy laws.
In this toxic environment, the discussion of blasphemy has not only become risky, but itself a blasphemous act. On January 29, Sami Ullah, a 17 year old first year pre-engineering student from Karachi, was arrested on charges of blasphemy for writing insulting comments about Mohammad on the answer sheets of an exam. The police officer in charge declined to say what Ullah had written for fear of violating the blasphemy laws himself. Should Sami Ullah be found guilty of the blasphemy charges against him, he may be put to death. Ullah’s prosecution is one of many new cases that have been filed since the death of Governor Taseer and added to the long list of outstanding blasphemy cases documented by Human Rights First.
One of those outstanding cases is that of Aasia Bibi, the Christian farm worker and mother of five who was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death in November. Her case gained international attention after Governor Taseer fought for her pardon. Today, she remains isolated in jail without an appeal date. Her family has gone into hiding and there have been public outcries for her murder should she be pardoned or have her sentence reduced.
Unfortunately, the abuse of blasphemy laws is not limited to Pakistan. Just last week there were outbreaks of violence in Indonesia against a group of Ahmadiyah worshippers and then again in reaction to a blasphemy sentence that extremists believed to be too lenient.
A November 2010 report issued by Human Rights First, Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamation of Religions,” details more than 50 recent cases from 15 countries. The report provides a window into how national blasphemy laws are abused by governments around the globe. The real-life stories in the report document how time and again, accusations of blasphemy have resulted in arrests and arbitrary detentions and have sparked assaults, murders and mob attacks.
Human Rights First is continuing to monitor these cases around the world, as well as developments in the Bibi and Ullah prosecutions. It is also closely monitoring developments as Qadri’s trial approaches. To stay informed about the latest news on blasphemy, visit our blog.