Senate's Committee on Human Rights to debate how to prevent misuse of blasphemy laws

Published: January 12, 2017
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ISLAMABAD: A Senate committee is set to debate how to prevent the country’s blasphemy laws being applied unfairly.

Senator Farhatullah Babar said the Senate Committee on Human Rights, of which he is a member, will start discussions on blasphemy laws as early as next week, based on recommendations from a 24-year-old report.

He said it would be the first time in decades that any parliamentary body had considered a formal proposal to stop the abuse of the blasphemy laws.

According to Babar, the committee would consider a proposal making it binding to investigate complaints before registering a case, to ensure “genuine blasphemy” had been committed and the law was not being used to settle scores, as critics say it is.

He also said the committee would debate whether life imprisonment was an adequate punishment, instead of the mandatory death penalty.

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If the committee makes any recommendations, it would be only the first step in a long process to bring about change in how the laws are enforced.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s office declined to comment on the Senate committee’s moves.

His party’s support would be needed for any measures to move forward, and while legislation protecting women’s rights has been passed and PM Nawaz has reached out to minorities, it is unclear if he would risk a backlash over blasphemy.

Unearthed report

The country’s religious and political elites almost universally steer clear of speaking against blasphemy laws, but a small group of lawmakers has been looking for ways to reduce abuses.

Babar said the Human Rights Committee hit a “gold mine” when he discovered a 24-year-old Senate report that called for a more specific definition of blasphemy and said further debate was needed on whether expunging “imprisonment of life” from an earlier law had been correct.

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“So we convinced other senators that here we have a chance, we have a starting point, we have this report in hand. Let’s debate it and see how we can prevent abuse of this law,” Babar said.

‘Firmer stance’

Last week, police arrested 150 hardline activists rallying in support of blasphemy laws on the anniversary of the assassination of Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor shot dead by his bodyguard for calling for reform.

Police have also resisted a demand by hardliners to register a blasphemy case against Shaan Taseer, the slain governor’s son, over a Christmas message calling for prayers for those charged under the “inhumane” legislation.

“This government has shown a firmer stance than the government when my father was martyred,” Shaan Taseer said.

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