On February 9, 1995 Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih were sentenced to death. Their crimes were blasphemy – to be specific, they were accused of writing derogatory graffiti on the walls of a mosque. A year before their conviction, Salamat’s uncle, another accused, was killed by a rabid mob who took "justice" into their own hands. Salamat was 14, and already sitting on death-row, accused of a crime he was literally unable to commit: Salamat was illiterate and did not know Arabic. On appeal to the Lahore High Court, spearheaded by pioneering lawyer Asma Jahangir, Salamat’s conviction was overturned. The response from the mobs of Islamist fundamentalists was of pure ire. Jahangir’s car was destroyed outside of the court, her driver assaulted, and her life threatened. As for the judges who had the bravery to uphold justice, the fate was worse. Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti was brutally murdered in his own chambers in another case of mob "justice." Over 20 years after this case that shocked the world, Pakistan is still not done with the trials and tribulations of blasphemy law. Three weeks ago, the Pakistan Supreme Court upheld the conviction and death sentence of Mumtaz Qadri, the police-guard-turned-assassin of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer. Taseer was unequivocal in his criticism of Pakistan’s vague and misused blasphemy law, and supported numerous reforms of the law, even describing it as a "black law." This progressivism cost him his life, as he was killed by his police-appointed guard Qadri in 2011. While there is no denying that Taseer was murdered in cold-blood, Qadri has been hailed by a vocal minority as a hero. Indeed his story draws parallels to another beloved Pakistani martyr, Ilm-ud-din, who murdered a blasphemous book publisher. Defended in court by the eventual father of Pakistan, Jinnah, Ilm-ud-din became figure of legend, immortalized by Iqbal’s tearful verses at Ilm-ud-din’s execution: “We kept sitting idle while this carpenter’s son took the lead.” However, the Pakistan Supreme Court ruling on the Qadri case might help to evaporate some of the antiquated sentiment surrounding the blasphemy laws. Although the first blasphemy law was introduced in 1860 during the British Colonial rule of India, it was only during the authoritarian rule of Zia-ul-Haq that blasphemy became a crime worthy of capital punishment, and by 1991 it was the mandatory punishment. Since 1986, over 1300 people have been accused of blasphemy – from students making a severe spelling mistake, to a famed philanthropist writing a poem. In a landmark report by Amnesty International in 1994, the NGO documented the numerous abuses of the blasphemy laws: "The blasphemy laws of Pakistan, while purporting to protect Islam and the religious sensitivities of the Muslim majority of Pakistan, are vaguely formulated and arbitrarily enforced by the police and the judiciary; as such they permit, even invite, abuse and the harassment and persecution of minorities in Pakistan." The Supreme Court, in its ruling on October 7, helped to cut through some of the opacity that has defined the blasphemy laws in the past. Qadri’s lawyers decided to lay the foundations of their defense on hollow and irrelevant religious sentiment, claiming that Taseer was blasphemous, thus justifying his murder. The justices ruled that being critical of blasphemy laws was not a blasphemous act in and of itself – instead, they affirmed criticism of any law as vital to a functioning democracy. "Will it not instill fear in society if everybody starts taking the law in his own hands and dealing with sensitive matters such as blasphemy in his own way rather than going to the courts," said Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, the leading member of the bench. Ultimately, it is very much "fear" as observed by the Justices that has dominated Pakistani society over this divisive issue. Fear has become a normal tactic, with threats of violence determining more and more the outcome of justice. In the wake of the killing of Salamat’s uncle, Mansoor Masih, Retired Supreme Court Judge Dorab Patel, Chairman of the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, declared to the National Assembly that the blasphemy law should be amended as it contributes to religious "fanaticism." He was interrupted by Member of Parliament Maulvi Azam Tariq of the Anjuman Sipah-e Sahaba, who shouted that "anyone who commits blasphemy will meet the fate of Mansoor Masih." With the veil of violence hanging over any blasphemy trial, it’s no surprise that the silent majority feels left in no-mans-land. Because the very evidence of a blasphemy trial is blasphemous, it is never reproduced – instead the public must rely on what amounts to hearsay and slander. If an accused is targeted by a mob or violence, innocent bystanders fear stepping in on the side of justice. They fear that their own faith might be questioned if the accused is determined guilty. It’s a vicious trap of fear designed to force away moderates and silence progressives. In the wake of Taseer’s killing in 2011, the reforms of the blasphemy laws were tabled, never to be seen again. While friends and family of Taseer claimed that the secular vision of Pakistan would never be tarnished, it seems that apotheosis is still a long ways away. Blasphemy laws are just a portion of a greater conversation of the death penalty in Pakistan. While the government had maintained a moratorium since 2008, it was lifted in December 2014 in the aftermath of the Peshawar School Attacks. Pakistan has executed over 190 death row prisoners over the course of the year, and while the government only relaxed the moratorium for terrorism cases, the vast majority of executions have been for standard crimes. Pakistan has rocketed back to the top of the execution charts, in stark contrast to an increasingly abolitionist world. In short, capital punishment has allowed the government to create a false carapace of action, instead of legitimate reforms and military operations against terrorism. Asma Jahangir - a founding member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, and lawyer of Salamat Masih in 1995 –explained that converting the public must be the first step towards to the abolition of the death penalty, especially in cases of blasphemy. "It’s not that there has not been a change in public opinion – previously this was not even an issue," she said. "Now at least it is an issue, it is debated, and there are more and more people who are not supporting the death penalty… I think we need to build public opinion far more in this part of the world." "Abolition means that you must not only prepare for public opinion, but you must also prepare for the opinions of policy makers, so that at least a critical mass can be reviewed. Then you can begin to chip at it,” said Jahangir. She also explained that it was time for Pakistan to come in line with a number of its international law obligations, and specifically in regards to the death penalty. Referencing the 1984 norm “Safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty” she noted that Pakistan needed to follow the simple guidelines and safeguards provided by the foundational UN document. Ultimately, the freedom of thought is enshrined in Article 18 of the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No person, no matter what religion, should be deprived of the right to life because of their religious beliefs. Even more fundamentally, capital punishment should not play a role in modern society; as noted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “the death penalty has no place in the 21st century.”
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.