3-1-2012By Pamela Kling Takiff
Advisor, Fighting Discrimination Program
A year ago tomorrow, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s only Christian Parliamentarian, was assassinated because of his heroic efforts to protect religious minorities. Along with his close friend Governor Salmaan Taseer, who was also murdered for his activism, he led the fight against Pakistan’s abusive blasphemy laws—laws that criminalize the insult of religion.
Days before his murder, Bhatti vowed not be silenced by death threats, saying, “I want to make it clear that I am mindful that in the struggle to protect religious freedom, the rights of minorities, and to raise the voice against the blasphemy law, I can be assassinated…But I will continue to follow the principles that I believe. I will continue to raise the voice of the voiceless. And I will not feel fear because of these threats…My destiny is to speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves.”
Bhatti and Taseer were concerned about the devastating effect of the blasphemy laws on members of minority faiths and others who don’t subscribe to mainstream Islam. They criticized the use of these laws to stifle dissent, harass rivals, legitimize violence, and settle petty disputes.
As a result of their murders, the debate over reforming Pakistan’s blasphemy laws has been largely derailed. Religious groups and political parties successfully pressured the government to withdraw a bill that would strengthen the legal requirements for proof of intent and evidence and punish those who make false accusations of blasphemy. Without these changes, it remains far too easy to abuse the laws.
Lawyers and judges are frequently subjected to intimidation and violence and are therefore reluctant to take on blasphemy cases. It is common for mobs to gather in and outside the courtrooms where blasphemy cases are tried, threatening to take the law into their own hands if the court does not hand down a guilty verdict. Misspoken words and allegations of desecration of the Koran have spurred mobs to descend on towns, burning places of worship, looting homes, and killing or injuring innocent residents. Perpetrators are rarely brought to justice.
Human Rights First has engaged with the international community in an effort to stop the use of abusive blasphemy laws. To read more about our work on these issues, please read our October 2011 report, Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamation of Religions.”