ISLAMABAD: The prime minister stated that Sherry Rehman, a member of the National Assembly from the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), has agreed to withdraw her bill seeking to amend the controversial blasphemy law.
Speaking to a group of parliamentarians in Islamabad, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said that he had spoken to Rehman and that she had agreed to withdraw her proposed bill. Rehman, however, disputed the prime minister’s statement and said that she was not consulted on the matter. In a statement released to the press, she said that even though she had not been taken into confidence, she would abide by the prime minister and her party’s position, which would preclude any discussion of procedural amendments to the blasphemy law.
Rehman submitted a bill to the National Assembly last year seeking to eliminate the death penalty from Section 295(C) of the Pakistan Penal Code, which criminalises the act of insulting the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and makes it punishable by life imprisonment or death. She never managed to gain the backing of the PPP, however, which continued to refer to it as the individual position of Ms Rehman and not the party.
Leaders from religious right-wing have been threatening the government with dire consequences if the proposed amendment is not withdrawn. An estimated 40,000 people rallied last week in Lahore against the bill despite the government’s repeated denials that it had any intention of amending the law.
Earlier in the day, Gilani reiterated his administration’s stance in the National Assembly that the government would not support any move to amend the law. He did, however, call for suggestions from religious groups on how to prevent misuse of the law. He was speaking to the house after Opposition Leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan sought an official word on both, the blasphemy law and the handling of an American’s case who killed two Pakistanis in Lahore last week.
Prime Minister Gilani also denied reports that his government formed a committee headed by the minority affairs minister to suggest changes to the blasphemy laws. The premier said only the president or the speaker of the National Assembly was empowered to create such a panel and neither have done so.
Sherry Rehman has reportedly been receiving death threats since she submitted the bill to Parliament. After Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by one of his own guards for voicing his opposition to the blasphemy law, Rehman has been advised by friends and supporters to go into exile abroad. While she has thus far refused to leave the country, Rehman has kept a very low profile in the aftermath of the governor’s assassination.
In her statement to the press, Rehman sought to clarify her position without appearing to retreat from her earlier stance.
“There was never any question of withdrawing the bill as the Speaker had never admitted it on the agenda. Had it appeared on the agenda perhaps some of our colleagues would have understood that it was not suggesting repeal of the law, but protecting our Holy Prophet’s (pbuh) name against injustices done via procedures introduced by Ziaul Haq. No Muslim would expect not to protect the Holy Prophet’s (pbuh) name, and no Pakistani would ever suggest anything other than that. The changes I had submitted were simple: that people be given a chance to prove their innocence like in all laws, and that cases be tried at the Higher courts, that penalties be given according to the Quran, and that no one who makes false charges in the name of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) who swore always to defend the innocent and the vulnerable go unpunished.”
Published in The Express Tribune, February 3rd, 2011.