Protesters burn a poster of Aasia Bibi after the Supreme Court overturned her conviction under the blasphemy law, Hyderabad, Pakistan, November 1, 2018.

© 2018 AP Photo

(New York) – The Pakistan Supreme Court’s decision to quash the conviction of a man who had spent almost 18 years in prison for blasphemy spotlighted abuses inherent in the law, Human Rights Watch said today. On September 25, 2019, the court ruled that the prosecution failed to provide substantial evidence against Wajih-ul-Hassan, who had been sentenced to death in 2002 for writing allegedly blasphemous letters.

Pakistan’s government should drop the charges, order the release of all detainees held for blasphemy, and revise the blasphemy law with the ultimate aim of repealing it.

“The overturned conviction of a man imprisoned for 18 years highlights just one of many miscarriages of justice stemming from Pakistan’s vaguely worded blasphemy law,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Typically, it’s members of religious minorities or other vulnerable communities who are wrongly accused and left unable to defend themselves.”

Section 295-C of Pakistan’s penal code, known as the blasphemy law, carries what is effectively a mandatory death sentence. According to the Center for Social Justice, a Pakistani advocacy group, at least 1,472 people were charged under the blasphemy provisions from 1987 to 2016. Although there have been no executions, at least 17 people convicted of blasphemy are currently on death row, while many others are serving life sentences for related offenses.

A mere accusation of blasphemy can put the security of the accused at risk. Since 1990, at least 65 people have been killed in Pakistan over claims of blasphemy, based on media reports.

Among the most egregious blasphemy cases is that of Junaid Hafeez, a 33-year-old university lecturer who was arrested for blasphemy on March 13, 2013, in Multan, Punjab province. Hafeez has been in solitary confinement since June 2014. His trial has had numerous delays and is now before the eighth judge since it began in 2013.

On May 7, 2014, Rashid Rehman, who had been Hafeez’s lawyer, was fatally shot in his office in Multan, in apparent reprisal for representing Hafeez and others charged under the blasphemy law. Rehman had been threatened with “dire consequences” for defending Hafeez.

On October 31, 2018, Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Aasia Bibi, who had spent eight years on death row. She was convicted under Pakistan’s blasphemy law after a June 2009 altercation with fellow farm workers who had refused to drink water she had touched, contending it was “unclean” because she was Christian. When pro-blasphemy law clerics threatened violence after the Supreme Court decision, Prime Minister Imran Khan in a televised speech said that the clerics were “inciting [people] for their own political gain,” and were “doing no service to Islam.”

Killings of people who have criticized the blasphemy law have had a chilling effect on efforts to reform the law. On January 4, 2011, Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was killed by his own security guard because Taseer had sought to repeal the blasphemy law. And on March 2, 2011, unidentified assailants killed the federal minorities affairs minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, an outspoken critic of the law.

The law has been increasingly used to jail and prosecute people for social media comments. In September 2017, Nadeem James, a 35-year-old Christian, was sentenced to death for forwarding a poem that was deemed insulting to Islam to a friend. In April 2014, a Christian couple was sentenced to death for sending an allegedly blasphemous text message to a local cleric.

The blasphemy law is often brought against members of religious minorities, frequently to settle personal disputes. But the government rarely brings charges against those responsible for physical attacks on people accused of blasphemy. In May, riots erupted in Mirpurkhas, Sindh, after a Hindu veterinarian was accused of committing blasphemy for allegedly providing medicines wrapped in a paper with Islamic verses printed on it. In an unusual law enforcement response, he was taken into protective custody and six people were charged with rioting.

Pakistan’s government should repeal sections 295 and 298 of the penal code, which includes the blasphemy law and the law discriminating against the Ahmadiyya religious community. The government should also promptly and appropriately prosecute those responsible for planning and carrying out attacks against religious minorities.

“The Supreme Court took an important step by ending Hassan’s horrific ordeal, though many more charged with blasphemy are languishing in Pakistani prisons,” Adams said. “Repealing the blasphemy law is necessary to ensure that all Pakistanis can live free from fear of unjust punishment and discrimination.”