Punjab: 68 lawyers indicted for blasphemy

May 16, 2014 by  
Filed under newsletter-asia

lawyers indicted for blasphemyIslamabad, May 14, 2014: “This is perhaps the strangest case involving the blasphemy law” to have ever emerged in Pakistan. What was a simple protest has turned into the mass indictment of members of the legal profession. “Are we to believe that we do not have the right to protest anymore?” said Fr Anwar John, a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Lahore.

Speaking to AsiaNews about what is rapidly becoming Pakistan’s most important blasphemy case, the clergyman said the 68 lawyers “did not fail to show respect to the Prophet Muhammad or the Muslim religion.”

The incident in question took place in Jhang District, Punjab. On Monday, the mostly Shia lawyers took to the streets to protest against the police, after one of their colleagues was arbitrarily detained. They demanded the arrest of five police officers who last week detained and beat up one of their colleagues in Jhang.

Yesterday, the police registered a case against the lawyers for insulting the name of a close relative of Muhammad during their protest, acting on a complaint from a citizen. The latter said he felt offended when the lawyers mocked a law enforcement officer who shares the same name (Omar) as the second caliph, which in his view constituted an example of blasphemy.

Local sources report that mediation is underway to avoid arrest, but the case is thus largely the result of the ongoing feud between local police and lawyers.

Although the maximum penalty would be three years in this case, blasphemy can be punished with the death penalty. Still, the lawyers’ case shows how the black law can lead to abuses.

In fact, the lawyers can expect worse than jail time, and could targeted (and even killed) by extremists strike.

For Fr Anwar John, this is an obvious case of revenge. “These people were indicted on false charges of blasphemy because they are Shias. It makes a mockery of the [legal] system.”

Hafiz Muhammad, spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars, agrees. “Islam is a religion of tolerance, and such cases are due to poor understanding of the law.

Nevertheless, despite the potential for abuse, the law should stay on the books. Sadly, when abuse does happen, Pakistan’s religious minorities find themselves wrapped by a mantle of insecurity and fear.

Against this, the Catholic and Protestant Churches have for years called for the repeal of the ‘black law’.

Adopted in 1986 by then dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq to please Islamists, the law imposes life in prison or death on anyone who desecrates the Qur’an or insults the Prophet Muhammad.

In 2009, AsiaNews promoted an international campaign to raise awareness about the law. However, no political party or government has ever dared change it. Anyone who did – like Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, a Muslim, and Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic – paid for it with their life.

According to data collected by the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, at least 964 people were charged under the blasphemy law between 1986 and August 2009: 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 people of no known religion.

In this same period, more than 40 innocent people fell victim to extra-judicial killings (by individuals or mobs), many of them mentally and physically disabled, or minors, like Rimsha Masih, who fortunately was saved from false charges after a massive campaign put pressure on Pakistani authorities.

– asianews

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