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Freedom House report on The Impact of Blasphemy Laws on Human Rights

12 November 2010

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Policing Belief: The Impact of Blasphemy Laws on Human Rights examines the human rights implications of domestic blasphemy and religious insult laws using the case studies of seven countries—Algeria, Egypt, Greece, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Poland—where such laws exist both on paper and in practice. Without exception, blasphemy laws violate the fundamental freedom of expression, as they are by definition intended to protect religious institutions and religious doctrine– i.e., abstract ideas and concepts – from insult or offence. At their most benign, such laws lead to self-censorship. In Greece and Poland, two of the more democratic countries examined in the study, charges brought against high-profile artists, curators and writers serve as a warning to others that certain topics are off limits. At their worst, in countries such as Pakistan and Malaysia, such laws lead to overt governmental censorship and individuals are both prosecuted and subject to severe criminal penalties including lengthy jail sentences.

Policing Belief: The Impact of Blasphemy Laws on Human Rights
A report by Freedom House

[excerpts from the section on Pakistan]



The issue of blasphemy laws and other restrictions on freedom of expression in Pakistan consistently garners headlines, with controversial decisions ranging from a May 2010 ban on access to the social-networking website Facebook and the video-sharing site YouTube to the imposition of death sentences for blasphemy convictions.[1] Minority leaders and human rights groups have long criticized the country’s blasphemy laws for being unduly harsh, arguing that they are regularly exploited by extremists to target and discriminate against minority groups, and misused by others to settle petty disputes or exact personal vengeance.

The blasphemy laws can be found in the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), Section XV, Articles 295–298. They address a number of offenses, including defiling a place of worship, damaging the Quran, and what amounts to apostasy. Perpetrators face possible fines, short-term or life imprisonment, and even the death penalty; while several individuals have been sentenced to death for blasphemy, no one has yet been executed for the crime.[2] The majority of cases of blasphemy filed in Pakistan fall under Articles 295 or 298 of the PPC. These are the most stringent provisions in Section XV, and the least compatible with international legal standards.

According to data compiled by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and cited by the U.S. State Department, a total of 695 people were accused of blasphemy in Pakistan between 1986 and April 2006. Of those, 362 were Muslims, 239 were Ahmadis, 86 were Christians, and 10 were Hindus.[3] The Pakistani daily newspaper Dawn has reported that some 5,000 cases were registered between 1984 to 2004, and 964 people were charged with blasphemy. The religious breakdown of the defendants was similar to that cited by the State Department.[4] The population of Pakistan is estimated at 173 million people,[5] and according to the 1998 census, 97 percent of the population is Muslim; most are Sunni Muslims, with Shiite Muslims accounting for about 20 percent. The remaining 3 percent of the population is made up of Hindus, Christians, Ahmadis, Parsis, and Baha’is.[6]

From these figures, it is clear that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are used prolifically and applied disproportionately to non-Muslims. Although many other countries have laws against blasphemy, the situation in Pakistan is unique in its severity and its particular effects on religious minorities.


Over the past several decades, Pakistan has undergone a process of Islamization in law and society and a decline in respect for pluralistic ideals. The country was formed as a Muslim homeland in 1947, following the end of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. Since independence, it has seen considerable political instability, with frequent changes in government through democratic elections as well as military coups. Though it was formed as a state for Muslims, Pakistan was not initially an Islamic state in the strictest sense. However, the political landscape has been heavily influenced by the ulama, or Muslim clerical elite, who have sought to bring Pakistani law into compliance with their interpretations of Shari’a (Islamic law).[7]

[. . .]

General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, who ruled from 1977 to 1988, continued and arguably accelerated the Islamization process as he sought to secure support among religious radicals and the middle classes.[15] During this period, the PPC and the Code of Criminal Procedure underwent a series of changes, including the imposition of the Hudood Ordinance, which allows harsh Shari’a punishments for extramarital sex, theft, and violations of the prohibition of alcohol. Five ordinances were added to the PPC that explicitly targeted religious minorities and criminalized blasphemy. In addition, Shari’a benches were introduced into Superior Courts through a constitutional amendment. These benches were soon replaced by the Federal Shari’a Court, whose mandate includes reviewing all Pakistani laws, with the exception of the constitution, for compliance with Shari’a.[16]

Though the PPC had always featured provisions addressing offenses to religion, the Islam-specific articles were adopted only in 1982. And the punishments for blasphemy and other religious offenses were amended during the Zia administration to include the possibility of life imprisonment and the death penalty. Most of these changes were made by presidential decree.

The drift away from pluralism in Pakistan has had severe consequences for minorities and religious freedom in general. It has created an atmosphere that encourages intolerance and violence, and the increased influence of religious extremists in the political system has compromised the ability of lower-level judges, police, and government officials to uphold pluralistic values. As one commentator pointed out, “It is…the responsibility of the elected politicians to provide the law and order without which no judiciary can work. Today, for instance, a judge in the districts dare not release the victims of blasphemy for fear of being harmed by violent mullahs.”[17] The influence of religious extremists has also prevented both elected and unelected governments from working to amend or repeal harmful laws in any substantive way. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and former military ruler Pervez Musharraf both expressed their commitment to amending the religious laws, but backtracked in the face of demonstrations by extremists and pressure from Muslim clerics.[18] Under Musharraf, who ruled from 1999 to 2008, a new amendment required police to investigate blasphemy allegations before making an arrest, but this rule is rarely observed in practice.

In February 2010, Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti told the media that he expected a change in the blasphemy laws by the end of the year.[19] The proposed amendments would require judges to investigate cases of blasphemy before they are registered, and would impose punishments equivalent to those faced by blasphemers for false accusations.[20] At the European Parliament in May 2010, Bhatti reiterated his confidence that the laws would be amended by the end of 2010, and stated that Pakistani authorities have “made a commitment to amend these laws.”[21]

At the same time, Pakistan’s government has consistently supported UN Human Rights Council resolutions on “defamation of religions,” which aim to protect religions as such from insult or offense. This effort has been condemned by human rights groups as a threat to freedom of expression and other fundamental rights.[22] Since Pakistan introduced the first resolution in 1999, it has actively advocated for the “defamation of religions” concept in other UN forums as well, including the Durban Review Conference; the Ad Hoc Committee on Complementary Standards; and the 2008 Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Conference on Articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

[. . .]

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are routinely used to exact revenge, apply pressure in business or land disputes, and for other matters entirely unrelated to blasphemy. Critics ranging from academics to civil society activists and journalists have argued that in most instances, charges of blasphemy are leveled for ulterior motives.[33]

[. . .]Conclusion

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws foster an environment of intolerance and impunity, and lead to violations of a broad range of human rights, including the obvious rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion, as well as freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention; the right to due process and a fair trial; freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; and the right to life and security of the person. The country is unique in the severity of abuses arising from the application of its blasphemy laws, and in the frequency with which the laws are invoked to prosecute individuals and justify vigilantism. The overall effect is a serious erosion of the rule of law itself, with police and courts seemingly at the mercy of Islamist extremists and other extralegal forces. Basic injustices are meted out not just to religious minorities and Muslims with dissenting views on Islam, but also to ordinary people whose personal disputes, opinions, or weaknesses make them ready fodder for the broader conflicts that trouble Pakistani society.

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