Even though scores of people have been handed down a verdict of the death penalty for violating the country’s blasphemy laws, not a single person has been executed by the state for the offense yet. This is because almost all cases heard under the blasphemy laws are based on evidence that is by no means incontrovertible, usually target the weak in society and almost always have an ulterior motive. Such seems to be the case with Sufi Mohammad Ishaq, a cleric living in the US who returned to Punjab in 2009. He was made the custodian of a shrine and was apparently very popular among his followers. It was this popularity that led him to be convicted, as some felt that his disciples bowing down before him, constituted an offense under the blasphemy laws. As with many blasphemy cases, this appears to be a dispute over property. Other clerics in the area were angry that this man, who had just come back from the US was given custody of a shrine. Registering a blasphemy case against him was perhaps the easiest way to wrest control of the shrine. The judge may already have signed the man’s death warrant. Just being accused or convicted of blasphemy is enough for vigilante mobs or rogue policemen to take matters into their own hands.
Even now, Aasia bibi, the poor Christian woman accused of blasphemy, is languishing in jail and forced to cook her own food in the fear that prison cooks may poison her. This is why simply reforming the laws will not work. As long as a society is prepared to use violence against those accused of blasphemy even when it hasn’t been proven, such laws can create serious problems. They provide mobs with the legal rationale to attack the most vulnerable among us, to steal their property and, ultimately, to kill them. The police are often, at worst, active participants and at best, disinterested bystanders. All the odds are already stacked against those wrongly accused of blasphemy. The blasphemy laws only make it harder for them.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 2nd, 2012.
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