(New York) - Pakistan's government should immediately introduce legislation to repeal the country's blasphemy law and other discriminatory legislation, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should also take legal action against Islamist militant groups responsible for threats and violence against minorities and other vulnerable groups, Human Rights Watch said.
While international and Pakistani human rights groups have long called for the repeal of the blasphemy law, it has come under renewed scrutiny in recent weeks as a consequence of a death sentence imposed on November 8, 2010, on Aasia Bibi, an illiterate farmhand from Sheikhupura district in Punjab province. She was charged under the blasphemy law after a June 2009 altercation with fellow farm workers who refused to drink water she had touched, contending it was unclean because she was a Christian. She is the first woman in Pakistan's history to be sentenced to death for blasphemy, though others have been charged and given lesser sentences.
"Aasia Bibi has suffered greatly and should never have been put behind bars," said Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The injustice and fear the blasphemy law spawns will only cease when this heinous law is repealed."
President Asif Ali Zardari ordered a review of the case in the face of domestic and international outrage. Government officials have indicated publicly that Zardari is expected to use his constitutional authority to pardon her.
Pakistan's "Blasphemy Law," as section 295-C of the penal code is known, makes the death penalty mandatory for blasphemy. In 2009, authorities charged scores of people under the law, including at least 50 members of the Ahmadiyya community, a heterodox sect that claims to be Muslim but has been declared non-Muslim under Pakistani law. Many of these individuals remain in prison.
Legal discrimination against religious minorities and the failure of Pakistan's federal and provincial governments to address religious persecution by Islamist groups effectively enables atrocities against these groups and others who are vulnerable. The government seldom brings charges against those responsible for such violence and discrimination. Research by Human Rights Watch indicates that the police have not apprehended anyone implicated in such activity in the last several years.
Social persecution and legal discrimination against religious minorities has become particularly widespread in Punjab province. Human Rights Watch urged the provincial government, controlled by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party, to investigate and prosecute as appropriate campaigns of intimidation, threats, and violence against Christians, Ahmadis, and other vulnerable groups.
On November 18, armed assailants opened fire at an Ahmadiyya mosque in Lahore, the Punjab capital. The mosque had no police protection despite a May 28 attack on two Ahmadiyya mosques in the city that killed 94 people and injured well over a hundred. Those attacks were believed to have been carried out by groups affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban.
The November 18 attack did not result in further loss of life only because of private security provided by the mosque management. Local residents told Human Rights Watch that the police initially sought to portray the attack falsely as a consequence of a dispute within the Ahmadiyya community and only made arrests when the mosque authorities provided security camera footage identifying the attackers.
"The Punjab provincial government is either in denial about threats to minorities or is following a policy of willful discrimination," Hasan said. "Provincial law enforcement authorities need to put aside their prejudices and protect religious minorities who are clearly in serious danger from both the Taliban and sectarian militant groups historically supported by the state."
Since the Pakistani military government of General Zia-ul-Haq unleashed a wave of persecution in the 1980s, violence against religious minorities has never really ceased. Attackers kill and wound Christians and Ahmadis, in particular, and burn down their homes and businesses. The authorities arrest, jail, and charge members of minority communities, heterodox Muslims and others, with blasphemy and related offenses because of their religious beliefs, as a means of transacting vendettas and settling scores. In several instances, the police have been complicit in harassing and framing false charges against members of these groups or stood by as they were attacked.
Human Rights Watch urged concerned governments and intergovernmental bodies to press the Pakistani government to repeal sections 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code, which includes the blasphemy law and anti-Ahmadiyya laws. They should also urge the government to prosecute those responsible for planning and executing attacks against religious minorities.
"Continued use of the blasphemy law is abominable," Hasan said. "As long as such laws remain on the books, Pakistan will remain plagued by abuse in the name of religion."