Tuesday, November 15, 2005

PAKISTAN: Call for repeal of blasphemy laws

LAHORE, 14 November - Outraged at the burning of two churches after alleged desecration of Islam's holy book by a Christian man, minority groups and human rights watchdogs in Pakistan on Monday demanded repeal of the country's blasphemy law, which they said was being misused frequently.

The fires came a day after a local Muslim resident in Pakistan's central Punjab province accused a Christian of burning a one-room Islamic school along with copies of the Koran.
More than 1,000 enraged Muslims set ablaze three churches, a convent and a priest's house near the town of Sangla Hill, about 80 km northeast of Lahore, witnesses said. No one was injured in the arson attacks in the town where one in ten of the 10,000 residents are Christian.
Christians make up less than three percent of Pakistan's mainly Muslim population of 150 million. Police say the attacks are being investigated.
"Police have arrested around 90 people for rioting, violence and vandalising Christian property," the Punjab government's home secretary Khusro Pervez, told reporters.
Yousaf Masih, the Christian accused of desecrating the Muslim holy book, has also been detained, he added.
Lahore police official Ali Asghar Dogar said the allegations were apparently brought by people who lost money while gambling with the Christian man on Friday.
Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao condemned the incident and promised security of Christian worship places. "Security of places of minority worship across Pakistan has been intensified and extra police deployed to protect them," Sherpao said.
But the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said police apparently stood by and watched.
"The fresh accusations of blasphemy against a Christian citizen and the failure of police to act in the matter has proved the lack of official will to prevent the abuse of blasphemy laws," the commission's Secretary-General, Syed Iqbal Haider, said in a press statement.
The crime of desecrating the Koran, under the blasphemy law, is punishable by death, although the punishment has not been carried out in recent years.
Human rights activists say the law is often misused to settle personal vendettas. "Most of these cases," said Amnesty International (AI) in a report on Pakistan, "are motivated not by the blasphemous actions of the accused, but by hostility toward members of minority communities, compounded by personal enmity, professional jealousy or economic rivalry".

Shafqatullah, a lawyer who defended a family accused of desecrating the holy book some years ago in Jhang, in central Pakistan, told IRIN: "So tense was the situation after a mosque blared 'kill them' calls early one morning. Had sanity not prevailed, the family might have been killed."
"And it was proved later that the issue was over a piece of land," he said. Often it's one person's word against another's, making it difficult to defend oneself against a blasphemy charge. Most cases are eventually thrown out when they reach a higher court due to a lack of evidence, but that doesn't necessarily save the accused. Even when those accused of blasphemy are found not guilty by the courts, their lives are still in danger.
The US State Department's latest annual report on International Religious Freedom noted that in Pakistan the government had taken steps to improve the treatment of religious minorities, but the abuse of the Hudood Ordinances and the blasphemy law continued. Citing the latest case as apparently having stemmed from a monetary dispute involving a gambling debt, Iqbal Haider said: "The list of such abuses of the law is growing by the day." Leading Christian organisations demand immediate repeal of the blasphemy law. "The blasphemy law has always acted as a lethal sword against the minority communities. Its repeal is our longstanding demand," a Christian community leader, Peter Jacob, told IRIN after an emergency meeting of the Catholic Church, Church of Pakistan, National Council of Churches, Salvation Army and National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) in Lahore.
"This latest atrocity shows that despite amendments made in the blasphemy laws last year, there is no real commitment to either implementing these, or protecting non-Muslims accused under the unjust laws," said the HRCP. Amendments adopted on 26 October 2005 place limits on the abuses of the law. Now, under the amended law, only senior police officers will be able to investigate blasphemy cases. More importantly, they will only be able to file criminal charges after looking into allegations. But minority organisations and human rights activists had rejected the changes as insufficient. "The blasphemy laws should be scrapped and those guilty of attacking buildings belonging to minority communities penalised under existing legislation," Haider said.

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