Pakistan: New legislation could stop misuse of blasphemy laws

Christians have called for greater protections in the wake of increased persecution in Pakistan.Reuters

Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws could soon be modified to combat increasing misuse, it has emerged, just weeks after experts warned that the government is failing to protect its citizens.

A draft bill introducing severe penalties against those who make false allegations of blasphemy has been finalised by the interior ministry, and will now be put before the Pakistani government. The new legislation aims to ensure that people do not take the law into their own hands, and will require proof that an individual intended to commit blasphemy before they can be charged.

The current law has been blamed for increasing inter-religious tensions across the country. Human rights groups say that it is frequently misused by extremists, and false charges are often brought against Christians in order to settle personal scores or to seize property or businesses. Perhaps the most infamous case is that of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy and now facing the death penalty. Her case made global headlines when two prominent politicians were assassinated after trying to help her.

More recently, anti-Christian violence erupted in a suburb of Lahore after a mentally ill man, identified as Humayun Masih, was accused of burning pages from the Quran. According to local reports, Christians in the area were forced to leave their homes, and police prevented a mob from setting fire to a church.

Last year, a Christian couple were beaten and burned to death in a brick kiln following rumours that they had also burned pages from the Quran. They were later proved innocent, and Pakistan has now charged 106 people with their murder.

The proposal for tightening the legislation has been welcomed by Nasir Saeed, director of the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS-UK) which works with Christians in Pakistan. "The misuse of the blasphemy law is on the rise...The Christian community is under constant attack and consider themselves a main target, and the root cause of their persecution is the blasphemy law," he said in a statement.

"If the new bill is passed and the National Police Bureau's recommendations are accepted then they will bring landmark changes."

However, Saeed warned that there may not be immediate changes even if the bill becomes law, but "it will have a long term impact on Christians' lives and will hopefully ultimately mean that no innocent person of any faith will be falsely charged or killed for a crime they never committed."

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) last month urged the Obama Administration to designate Pakistan a "country of particular concern" and blamed the Pakistani government for failing to provide adequate protection to targeted groups.

"Pakistan's legal environment is particularly repressive due to its religiously discriminatory constitutional provisions and legislation, including its blasphemy laws," the USCIRF's annual report said.

"The government failed to protect citizens, minority and majority alike, from sectarian and religiously-motivated violence, and Pakistani authorities have not consistently brought perpetrators to justice or taken action against societal actors who incite violence."