7-9-2012By Pamela Kling Takiff
In Pakistan on July 4th, a vigilante mob of some 2000 people dragged a man out of his jail cell, beat him to death, and then set his body on fire. This gruesome episode is just the latest in which innocent people have fallen victim to Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws.
Blasphemy laws are frequently used to stifle debate and dissent, harass rivals, and settle petty disputes among neighbors, business partners and political adversaries. They also, increasingly, trigger violence.
It has become commonplace for mobs to gather in and around courtrooms where blasphemy cases are tried. Vigilantes, often called to arms over the loudspeakers of local mosques, are prepared to take the law into their own hands if the court does not hand down a guilty verdict.
Sometimes mere allegations are enough to trigger violence. In this latest incident, the man—reportedly both homeless and mentally unstable—was alleged to have burnt pages of the Koran, a crime that is punishable by life imprisonment.
This case highlights the unpreparedness of the local police in dealing with mob violence. They refused to succumb to demands that they kill the man on the spot, but were outnumbered and unable to prevent the crowd from storming the jail.
On June 16, an armed mob attacked a different police station demanding that a man detained for allegedly burning pages of the Koran be handed over. Two children died in this assault and 19 others suffered gunshot wounds. In both incidents, police vehicles were torched, roads were blocked, and buildings were destroyed.
The government has largely failed in its obligation to protect people from extrajudicial violence, which affects alleged violators of blasphemy laws as well as the judges and lawyers involved in such cases. Those accused of blasphemy are at risk before, during, and after their trials. Bail is often denied and legal proceedings can take years while those accused languish in jails unsafe for accused blasphemers. Even when acquitted, those charged with blasphemy are marked for life and may have to go into hiding or seek exile. Often the perpetrators of violence have asserted it to be their “religious duty” to kill blasphemers and their supporters. Rarely are they brought to justice.
President Asif Ali Zardari has rightly condemned this most recent attack and called for an immediate investigation. He also has proclaimed that no one should be allowed to take the law into his own hands.
Condemnation and promises of an investigation will be of minimal value, however, unless the government renews its efforts to reform the country’s blasphemy laws. Discussion of reform came to an abrupt halt after the assassinations of Governor Salmaan Taseer and Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti in 2011. Both men were murdered because they spoke out in favor of reforming the laws and against the proposed death sentence of Aasia Bibi, a Christian farm worker and mother of five, convicted of blasphemy following a disagreement with a Muslim co-worker. She has been jailed since November 2010 and remains in solitary confinement to protect her from other prisoners.
It is time for the government to clearly demonstrate that it will no longer tolerate intolerance. The blasphemy laws must be reformed, and the perpetrators of the recent violence must be brought to justice.
In March Human Rights First released an updated report documenting over one hundred recent cases from 18 countries that demonstrate the gross abuse of national blasphemy laws.