Implications of the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill on Fundamental Freedoms in Pakistan

The proposal to amend Section 298 A of the Pakistan Penal Code through the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill has been met with significant concern. This modification, aiming to enhance the severity of punishments for blasphemy, has sparked fears amongst religious and sectarian minorities.

These groups foreseeing an escalation of their persecution, if the Bill was to become a law, leads to a broader debate on the balance between religious respect and democratic liberties.

The original provision, Section 298 A, condemns defiling the sacred name of the Holy Prophet’s family and companions with a maximum sentence of three years or a fine or both. The amendment, introduced by Jamaat-e-Islami’s Member of National Assembly Abdul Akbar Chitrali, proposes to increase this punishment to a minimum term of ten years and a maximum of life imprisonment.

The challenge extends with the proposal to make these offenses non-bailable. This feature has intensified the debate, drawing attention from politicians and civil rights groups who perceive an overreach of state power and a threat to fundamental rights.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have long been contentious, owing to their historical misuse, particularly to settle personal and political scores. The proposed bill’s potential to further weaponize these laws has magnified existing apprehensions about infringing upon freedom of speech, expression, and the basic rights to life and liberty—principles enshrined in Articles 19 and 9 of the Constitution of Pakistan.

The proposed amendment’s threats to these freedoms are twofold. First, the dramatic increase in punishment severity could curtail freedom of speech and expression. History has shown that such laws are not immune to abuse, often at the expense of religious and sectarian minorities.

The proposed amplification of the severity of the punishments is a drastic shift from the current legal implications of a conviction under Section 298 A. The proposed minimum ten-year sentence and potential life imprisonment may not only lead to disproportionate punishment for the alleged offence but could also induce a chilling effect on free speech.

Given the high incidence of fabricated or manipulated accusations under the blasphemy laws, these severe penalties could deter open dialogue, crucial to a democratic society.

Second, the proposed non-bailable nature of the offence could lead to individuals’ prolonged detention without bail, pending case resolution. This feature exacerbates existing issues of overcrowded prisons and raises fundamental questions about infringing upon the rights to life and liberty.

There is, therefore, a need for a balanced approach that respects religious sentiments while also safeguarding individual rights and liberties. This is particularly pertinent in Pakistan’s diverse religious and sectarian landscape. The legal provisions should ensure peaceful coexistence and the protection of fundamental rights without conferring unbridled power to the state prone to misuse and gifting an opportunity to the extremist elements to misuse it for their own goals.

An important point to note is that Islam, the primary religion in Pakistan, does not universally advocate harsh penalties for perceived blasphemy offences. Even among religious scholars, as shown in the infamous case of Ismail Qureshi versus the Federation of Pakistan in 1991, there was no consensus on the appropriate punishment for blasphemy.

The Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill carries serious implications for Pakistan’s legal landscape, freedom of speech, and religious harmony. For the protection of fundamental human rights, it’s critical to uphold democratic principles, ensuring laws are not manipulated for personal or political gains. Therefore, careful deliberation is required, emphasizing both sensitivity to religious sentiments and commitment to the protection of individual rights and freedoms.

The genesis of these legislative changes relating to blasphemy, which commenced during the 1980s under General Zia’s rule, is deeply problematic. The primary alterations introduced during this time were seemingly designed to target a specific Islamic sect. It can be argued that the foundational basis for these modifications was steeped in dishonesty and malice, setting a concerning precedent. These alterations were not born out of a genuine desire for societal progress, but rather a calculated attempt to marginalize a particular religious group.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan trace their origins back to the British colonial era. These laws were first introduced to British administered India in 1860 with the aim of preventing religious communalism and intra-religious conflict. The laws were codified within the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to protect religious sentiments and places of worship from defilement, disturbance, and deliberate insult. When Pakistan was created in 1947 after Partition, it inherited these laws from its former British colonial rulers.

In the subsequent years, the blasphemy laws in Pakistan went through significant expansions. In 1980, they were extended to criminalize derogatory remarks against Islamic personages. Then, in 1982, Section 295-B was added, making the desecration of the Qur’an a criminal offense. In 1986 with the Section 295-C was included, which made derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad punishable by death or life imprisonment.

Originally, the use of blasphemy laws in Pakistan remained relatively rare. Between 1860 and 1947, there were just seven recorded cases of blasphemy. However, during the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq from 1977 to 1988, the laws were significantly strengthened, and the number of blasphemy cases skyrocketed. General Zia’s government added several new clauses specifically related to Islam, criminalizing offenses against Islamic beliefs and figures.

According to the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), from 1947 to 2021, 89 people have been extrajudicially killed, and roughly 1,500 accusations and cases of blasphemy have been reported in Pakistan. The spike can be noticed from the fact that of the total 1500 known cases, 1,287 citizens were accused of committing blasphemy between 2011 and 2021. In 2022 alone, at least 52 individuals were accused of blasphemy or related religion-based criminal charges, as per reports from civil society organizations. However, the actual number of cases may be higher as not all incidents get reported in the press.

Analytically, this reflects a significant challenge for Pakistan in terms of transitioning fully from a colonial state to a modern republic. Retaining and reinforcing these laws may indicate a reluctance to break away from colonial legacies and move towards a more progressive legal framework that respects individual rights, freedom of expression, and societal diversity. To become a modern republic, there is a need to critically evaluate and eliminate such archaic laws that raise concerns about their misuse for personal vendettas, silencing dissent, and targeting religious minorities. The vague language in the laws and the severity of punishments have resulted in a climate of fear and intimidation

SECTARIAN MAJORITARIAN STATE?

The legislation of blasphemy laws in Pakistan carries the risk of the majority Muslim sect gaining dominance and influence over state institutions and policymaking. This fear has led to concerns that Pakistan might be gradually transforming into a majoritarian sectarian state, which could result in intimidation, discrimination, or exclusion of other religious and sectarian groups from political decision-making processes. To avoid this, it is essential to strike a balance between Pakistan’s Islamic identity and the protection of rights and freedoms for all citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs or affiliations.

Moreover, there are apprehensions that mainstream political parties, especially in anticipation of impending elections, may blindly support this legislation for political expediency. This could further exacerbate the situation and deepen the challenges posed by the misuse and abuse of blasphemy laws in the country.

It is crucial for Pakistan to address the potential implications of the legislation of blasphemy laws on its path towards becoming an inclusive and democratic society. A careful consideration of the impact of such laws on minority rights and religious freedom is necessary to ensure a just and harmonious future for the nation.

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