The National Assembly has passed Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2017, a bill that seeks to address the issues of abuse of blasphemy law, sectarian hate speech, forced marriage of non-Muslim women and the crime of lynching. Therefore, the bill now due to be presented in the Senate, introduces changes to sections; 182 (falsification), 298 (hate speech), 498 B (forced marriage) of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860, Schedule II (defining competent courts) of Code of Criminal Procedure 1898 , sections 23, 27 and 32 (action against and the punishments for proliferation of hate material) Police Act 1861, section 10 of the Qanoon-e-Shahdat 1984, Section 11W (act of lynching to constitute terrorism) of the Anti-terrorism Act 1997.
In essence the bill seeks to add: categories of offenses and procedures, and a form of evidence, though most importantly, the bill seeks to introduce severer punishments for the above-mentioned offences i.e. three to seven years of jail, or more, depending on the gravity of offence and enhanced limits of fine from one hundred thousand to one million rupees for different offences. The treasury seems to have done impressive work by initiating legislation on some of the most disturbing issues concerning suppression of crimes against religious minorities. Whereas a deeper look into the context shows that the bill may have defied even more crucial questions which will not merely impact implementation of the new measures but also make the viability of these measures questionable. For instance, forced marriage of minority women is usually accompanied by forced conversions which the bill does not criminalise. Hence the near-ineffectiveness of the measure given in the bill is almost predictable. Similarly, a mere increase of punishment for the offence of falsification is not likely to deter the crime or hold the persons levelling false accusations accountable because the amendment neither addresses the vulnerability of victims of blasphemy laws nor adds procedure to the new measure. Any student of law could tell that section 182 of the Pakistan Penal Code regarding relief against false accusations is a redundant protection against the abuse because people do not want to undergo the agony of another legal proceeding.
The bill seems to have ignored in its entirety, the recommendations of the judicial inquiries held by Justice Tanveer Ahmad Khan in 1997 after the Shanti Nagar incident and by Justice Iqbal Hameeduddin after the Gojra incident in 2009. The bill could have also benefitted from a number of judgments in cases under the blasphemy allegations, findings and discussions of human rights committees in parliament besides the bill that was presented by Sherry Rehman in 2010. The Ministry of Law and Justice owes an explanation as to why the promises made two years ago in NAP regarding criminal justice system reforms, judicial reforms and police reforms are being ignored. Why is a patch work of amendments being considered a substitute whereas a package of reforms is being demanded by all stakeholders, including the superior judiciary? It has been a pattern that amendments to criminal justice are introduced in bits and pieces; in 2014 protection of women’s rights, in 2016 protection of child rights and protection of minorities is being imagined in 2017. This approach of administering justice is in need of serious review. The Senate of Pakistan is recommended to introduce a more holistic approach with regard to protection of religious minorities and reforms in the criminal justice system, it is prudent that justice is revisited. The emphasis needs to be on the restorative rather than punitive approach of criminal justice considering that the state has neglected for a long time what was due on its part.
The scope of making a tolerant society and reducing crime obviously goes beyond the role of legislation, jails and courts. The success towards higher purpose of criminal justice is contingent upon a holistic approach as well as matching steps in educational policy and curriculum and other social sector reforms.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 18th, 2017.