A government concession to demands by a Muslim extremist political party to allow blasphemy charges under Pakistan's anti-terrorism laws has raised fears of more injustice for those accused under the harsh statutes, sources said.
Federal Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and Economic Affairs Minister Sardar Ayaz Sadiq on June 17 signed an agreement with leaders of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), Muhammad Shafique Amini and Allama Ghulam Abbas Faizi, that would allow blasphemy cases to be tried under the country's anti-terrorism law.
The agreement stipulates that punishment under Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 1997 would apply to suspects charged with committing blasphemy under the Pakistan Penal Code's Section 295-C against making derogatory remarks about Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.
The government also agreed to establish a "Counter Blasphemy Wing" under the Federal Investigation Agency to take action against dissemination of "blasphemous content" on the internet. In addition, the agreement calls for speedy trials of blasphemy suspects, as well as a swift appeals process.
A Muslim lawyer of the Supreme Court, Asad Jamal, said that derogatory remarks about Muhammad under Section 295-C do not fall under the definition of terrorism, and that the purpose of the ATA is to curb sectarianism.
"295-C relates to hurting of religious sentiments as a result of blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad, whereas Section 7 of ATA is specifically for acts wherein the general public feels terrorized by violence," Jamal told Morning Star News. "It warrants a question here of how can an accused instigate the masses and simultaneously also terrorize them? Going ahead with any move to amend the ATA to include Section 295-C will only worsen the human rights situation in Pakistan."
Jamal added that putting blasphemy under the anti-terror law could jeopardize Pakistan's European Union GSP Plus status, which calls for improving the human rights situation in the country, including stopping the abuse of blasphemy laws.
He echoed rights activists' fears about the fairness of blasphemy trials in anti-terror courts.
"Statements of the accused taken in police custody under CrPC [Criminal Procedure Code] are usually considered involuntary by the courts, which is why the accused are given an opportunity to record their statements again in the courtrooms," Jamal said. "However, anti-terror courts routinely admit statements given in police custody, which may pose a serious issue for the accused."
Moreover, blasphemy suspects already face social stigma, and if their cases are heard under anti-terror laws, they would face a double stigma of both blasphemer and terrorist, he said.
"Such surrenders [by the government] embolden religious forces to abuse the laws with more vigor and impunity," Jamal said. "I hope the government realizes the consequences of this agreement with TLP and instead works to curb the false accusations of blasphemy which have tarnished the image of Pakistan globally."
For the agreement to take effect, the government must amend the ATA through parliament, for which it is working on draft amendments.
Peter Jacob, executive director of the Lahore-based Center for Social Justice, said the legal measures and approach in the agreement are based on a presumption of guilt and rely mainly on the retributive aspect.
"These measures have been repeatedly tried and proven to be a failure in tackling the key issue of abuse of religion and law, particularly the blasphemy laws," Jacob told Morning Star News.
The agreement was reached without any negotiations with representatives of rights and minorities, and it lacks a depth of understanding of the issues, he said.
"The government failed to take the aggrieved parties, i.e., civil society organizations, religious minorities and national human rights institutions, on board before conceding to this demand," Jacob told Morning Star News. "By and by, this move is a misfortune for the government and the country."
He noted that implementation of this demand would increase abuse of the blasphemy statutes, especially against vulnerable minorities like Christians and minority Muslim sects.
The Voice Society Chief Executive Aneeqa Maria said that, so far, Section 295-C is not a schedule offense and not included in Section 6 of the Anti-Terror Act, nor is it available in any offenses of the ATA of 1997.
"If a blasphemy accused is tried under anti-terrorism laws in Pakistan, it would have significant impact and consequences on the victims," said Maria, a human rights attorney. "By associating blasphemy with terrorism, the accused may face limited legal protections and an increased risk of violence or vigilante attacks against them."
With blasphemy included under the anti-terrorism laws, suspects may face a compromised judicial process, including unfair trials, she said.
"Additionally, bail could be denied further, prolonging their detention and exacerbating the emotional and physical toll on the victims," Maria said.
She concurred that accusations of blasphemy already carry a high risk of violence and vigilantism in Pakistan.
"Trying blasphemy cases under anti-terrorism laws could further escalate this risk, as it would be seen as a matter of national security," she told Morning Star News. "The accused, their lawyers, their families, and their communities could become targets of violence and threats from extremist groups or individuals who believe they are defending religious sensitivities."
This fear can extend beyond suspects to lawyers, police, prosecutors, judges and others involved in the criminal justice system, she added.
"It may hinder their ability to carry out their duties effectively, impartially and without fear, thus undermining the principles of justice and human rights," Maria said.
Joseph Jansen of advocacy group Voice for Justice said the addition of terrorism charges will make blasphemy suspects more vulnerable as they would more often face death or life imprisonment with a fine as punishment than they do under the blasphemy statutes.
"It will only strengthen the controversial laws and support arbitrary detentions, making the victims more vulnerable," Jansen told Morning Star News. "It puts the prospect of a fair trial in question, thus violating our international treaties."
He added that it was unfortunate that Pakistani governments have continued to capitulate to mobs in favour of laws misused for personal vendettas.
Blasphemy against Muhammad is punishable by death under Pakistani law, and conviction requires little legal evidence.
As a result, the blasphemy laws are often used as a weapon of revenge against both Muslims and non-Muslims to settle personal scores or to resolve disputes over money, property, or business. In a religiously sensitive country, a mere allegation is enough to provoke a mob to riot and lynch those accused of blasphemy.
At least 1,949 persons were accused under the blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2021, according to the Center for Social Justice. A large number of these blasphemy cases are still awaiting justice.
As of May 15, 57 cases of alleged blasphemy have been reported this year. Punjab Province tops the list with 28 cases, followed by Sindh Province with 16, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province with 8 and Kashmir Province with 5.
In January, the National Assembly passed the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, increasing punishment for insulting Muhammad's companions, wives and family members from three years to 10 years and a fine of 1 million rupees (US$3,480).
Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors' 2023 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, up from eighth the previous year.