Relatives mourn over the body of Rashid Rehman, a lawyer who was killed by unidentified gunmen a day earlier, on May 8, 2014. Gunmen shot dead the prominent human rights lawyer who was defending a professor accused of blasphemy.

© 2014 Reuters

Some of the hundreds of people jailed and awaiting trial on charges of violating Pakistan’s dangerously ambiguous and discriminatory blasphemy law have reason to be cautiously optimistic.

Punjab’s provincial judiciary has drawn up a shortlist of 50 cases of alleged blasphemy in which it found the accused have been “victimized” by inadequate evidence or lack of legal counsel. The provincial government will undertake the legal defense of those defendants – some of whom may be mentally ill – in special “fast track” trials.

It’s a mostly symbolic initiative – there are at least 262 people awaiting trial on blasphemy charges in Punjab alone – but one that’s desperately needed. The majority of those charged with blasphemy are members of religious minorities, often as the result of personal disputes. Pakistan’s blasphemy law, as section 295-C of the penal code is known, makes the death penalty effectively mandatory for those convicted. To date, there have been no executions carried out, but at least 19 people in the country are on death row for blasphemy. 

In Pakistan today, even an accusation of blasphemy can be a death sentence. On November 4, 2014, an angry mob attacked a Christian couple, Shama and Shahzad Masih, in Kot Radha Kishan in Punjab for suspected blasphemy. The couple was savagely beaten and then burned to death in a brick kiln. The next day, a police officer in Gujrat, also in Punjab, decapitated a man with a mental disability who was in custody in the city’s police station for allegedly committing blasphemy.

Lawyers who seek to defend individuals accused of blasphemy do so at great risk. On May 7, two unidentified gunmen killed Rashid Rehman, a prominent human rights defender and member of the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, for his willingness to represent people accused of blasphemy. His killers remain at large.

The Punjab provincial initiative can’t address the enormity of the abuses fostered by Pakistan’s blasphemy law. But it’s an important official recognition that the law is unfair and dangerous. Pakistan’s federal government needs to take the next step and finally amend or repeal the blasphemy law – and end the fear and discrimination it breeds.