The National Assembly of Pakistan has voted to make the country’s controversial blasphemy laws more stringent, sparking alarm among minority communities who fear it could fuel rights abuses and be used to further target religious minorities.
On 17 January the National Assembly unanimously passed the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, increasing punishment for insulting the Prophet Mohammed’s companions, wives, and family members from three years to 10 years imprisonment, along with a fine of 1 million Pakistani rupees (approximately GBP £3,500).
The amendment has increased fears among Pakistan’s already vulnerable religious and sectarian minority communities. Minority leaders have expressed their concerns that the politicians who pushed for this amendment have ignored the existing challenges Pakistani society is facing with blasphemy laws, which stipulate death for convicts and often foster mob violence.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws criminalise anyone who insults Islam, including by ‘outraging religious feeling’, which carries either the death penalty or life imprisonment. These laws are poorly defined and require low standards of evidence. As a result, they are often used as a weapon of revenge against both Muslims and non-Muslims to settle personal scores or to resolve disputes over money, property or business.
Human rights and minority groups in Pakistan have been demanding the repeal of the laws for years. In 2011 Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, a prominent critic who tried to reform the blasphemy laws, was killed by his bodyguard.
CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: ‘CSW is deeply concerned by the provisions in this Bill, which were approved without debate by Pakistan’s parliament despite the fact that existing blasphemy legislation has resulted in extra-judicial killings and countless incidents of mob violence based on false accusations. Policymakers have ignored the long-standing demands of civil society organisations and minority community leaders for the repeal of the blasphemy laws or at the very least the introduction of procedural amendments to curb the misuse of these laws. Pakistan must do more to protect its most vulnerable minority communities by upholding its international obligations and guarantees enshrined within the country’s constitution, and the international community must hold the government to account for where it fails or refuses to do so.’
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Issue by CSW, a human rights organisation specialising in freedom of religion or belief. We work on over 20 countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. www.csw.org.uk