‘Blasphemy accused often denied right to fair trial’

Published: November 6, 2015
ICJ says adequate safeguards against misuse of blasphemy laws are missing. PHOTO: AFP

ICJ says adequate safeguards against misuse of blasphemy laws are missing. PHOTO: AFP

LAHORE: Those accused of blasphemy are subjected to several illegalities and violations of their rights during their trial, according to a report launched by the International Commission of Jurists on Wednesday.

In the 60-page document titled, On Trial: The Implementation of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws, the ICJ has documented systematic and widespread violations of fair trials requirements related to blasphemy offences in Pakistan, particularly in trial courts. It says the blasphemy accused’s right to defence is impeded through intimidation and harassment of judges and lawyers, bias and prejudice of some judges against accused, lack of the right to counsel’s assistance, absence of the right to bail and prolonged pre-trial detention, incompetent investigation, and lack of concessions for accused suffering from mental disabilities.

The country’s laws on offences related to religion (Sections 295-298-C of the Pakistan Penal Code) are commonly known as blasphemy laws. These include a variety of offences, including misusing religious epithets, defiling the Holy Quran, deliberately outraging religious sentiments, and using derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Sentences for these offences range from fines to long terms of imprisonment to death. The report “confirms concerns recently raised by the Supreme Court that those accused of blasphemy suffer beyond proportion or repair, in the absence of adequate safeguards against the misuse of such blasphemy laws”. The report is based on the analysis of more than 100 judgements of high courts and the courts of first instance from 1986 to 2015 and interviews with defendants in blasphemy cases, their families, defence counsel, judges, lawyers, police officials and human rights activists. In 19 out of 25 cases related to 295-C studied by the ICJ, high courts acquitted those convicted for blasphemy by trial courts.

“Glaring procedural irregularities and malafide complaints are the grounds for the acquittal on appeal in more than 80 per cent of cases,” reads the report.  It says that even in blasphemy cases that result in acquittal, proceedings suffer from undue delays… on average trial court proceedings take three years, and appeals can take more than five years.

It says those accused of blasphemy under Section 295-C are frequently denied bail. The report says that Article 295 is a relic of the British colonial system that lends itself to human rights violations in Pakistan, India, Myanmar and elsewhere. In Pakistan, additions to these laws under General Ziaul Haq’s military dictatorship have made blasphemy provisions truly draconian, it says. “It’s time that Pakistan and other countries get rid of the laws that continue to stifle freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief.”

Published in The Express Tribune, November 6th, 2015.

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