While Christians fear that government compliance with the Federal Shariat Court's order Dec. 4 to remove life imprisonment as a punishment for insulting Muhammad could usher in a new era of persecution, some critics say the greater concern is that it could broaden the powers of the controversial court.
Section 295-C of Pakistan's blasphemy laws calls for either death or life imprisonment for those convicted of insulting Muhammad. The Federal Shariat Court (FSC) has given the government several weeks to implement, through parliament, its order to remove life imprisonment as a possible blasphemy punishment.
The court's order comes less than three years after the assassinations of two top government officials quelled most criticism of the blasphemy laws.
While the ruling could further encourage extremists to attack those they believe are insulting Muhammad, the FSC order may have little specific legal impact since judges have tended to issue death penalty sentences for such convictions anyway, Yasser Latif Hamdani, who practices law in superior courts, told Morning Star News, which monitors persecution of Christians worldwide.
"This is a guideline that the courts have already followed," Hamdani said. "The problem is that it has symbolic significance. It opens the door for the Federal Shariat Court to exercise greater influence on the legal system."
Hamdani said he hopes that the order would go to the Supreme Court's Shariat Appellate Bench, which he hopes "may take a more positive and liberal view."
Attorney Shoaib Salim of the Lahore High Court also expressed hope for the FSC order's reversal.
"The FSC is only empowered to examine and determine whether the laws of the country comply with sharia or not," Salim said. "The ultimate decision rests with the parliament."
Salim said it is unlikely the government would implement an order that would further incite religious hatred and persecution in Pakistan. The blasphemy laws often have been abused to settle personal vendettas as antagonists can easily level false accusations that ruin lives.
The FSC, since its establishment in 1980, has been the subject of criticism and controversy. Created as an Islamization measure by the military regime of Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul Haq, and subsequently protected under the controversial 8th Amendment, FSC opponents question its existence and usefulness. The court -- emcompassing eight Muslim judges, including three required to be Islamic law scholars -- exercises jurisdiction over criminal courts deciding cases which involve punishments prescribed by Islamic writings.
Critics say the FSC merely duplicates the functions of superior courts and conflicts with the authority of parliament. They also allege that the way its judges are appointed and retained is tainted.
The FSC's decisions are binding on high courts as well as on subordinate judiciary. Appeals against its decisions lie with the Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court, consisting of three Muslim judges of the Supreme Court and two Islamic scholars appointed by the president.
Bloodshed over 'blasphemy'
On Jan. 4, 2011, then-Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer's police bodyguard gunned him down for calling for a review of the blasphemy laws and giving moral support to a woman sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy. Two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's federal minister for minority affairs, was assassinated in Islamabad; members of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility. Bhatti had faced threats on his life for voicing opposition to the blasphemy laws.
Pakistan's top Islamist clerics, nevertheless, not only have pushed for greater FSC powers but declared they will not tolerate any amendments to the blasphemy laws.
A few days after nearly 150 Christian homes were burned to the ground in March by violent Muslim mobs in Lahore's Joseph Colony over allegations that a Christian youth had insulted Muhammad, top Sunni Islamist clerics led by Ruet-e-Hilal Committee Chairman Muneebur Rehman recommended that all persons accused of blasphemy be tried by the FSC.
Islamic clerics also have opposed the imposition of penalties for the accusers in such cases, arguing that no punishment exists for falsehood in other cases. And Rehman has demanded that defamation of sacred religious personalities should be declared a crime under international law.
Punishment for false witness does have some advocates. After much lobbying, Pakistan Ulema Council Chairman Allama Tahir Ashrafi called in September for the country's top religious body, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), to recommend the death sentence for those making false blasphemy accusations. Such a law is necessary as a deterrent, Ashrafi said, but hardliners in the CII shot down his initiative.
"I have been relentlessly protesting the misuse of the blasphemy laws," Ashrafi said. "This is not only bringing a bad name to Pakistan but also the entire Muslim Ummah . It's a pity that the other religious leaders failed to understand the importance of a strong deterrent for false accusers. Those making a false accusation needed to face the death penalty because the words attributed to the accused were actually uttered by the accuser."
CII Chairman Maulana Muhammad Khan Sheerani said a majority of the CII members believe there was no need to amend the blasphemy laws.
"We don't want to discourage people from coming forward and lodging complaints against blasphemers," Sheerani said. "There's already a law -- Section 194 of the Pakistan Penal Code -- which envisages punishments for lodging a false FIR."
Sheerani, who believes the Federal Shariat Court's order removing life in prison for those convicted of blasphemy is in line with Islamic injunctions, said the FSC is the right forum to decide blasphemy cases.
"Laws relating to Islam should be decided by the FSC," Sheerani said. "Our senior clerics have already recommended that such cases be decided within three months. If the suspect is found innocent, the false accuser can be tried under the relevant section of the PPC ."
Napolean Qayyum, a Christian rights activist, predicted the FCC's order would usher in a new era of persecution.
"We have seen people taking the law into their own hands and deciding for themselves what the punishment should be," Qayyum said. "This ruling will only embolden elements who use the blasphemy laws to target the weak and marginalized communities of this country. How many more innocent lives would it take for the government to realize that it needs to do something to bring an end to this victimization?"
Attorney Aneeqa Maria, head of Christian rights group The Voice Society, told Morning Star News that Pakistan's blasphemy laws have no standards for evidence or for proof of intent, even though intent must be shown for a conviction, as well as no procedural safeguards to penalize those who make false allegations.
"They are a constant sword hanging over our heads, and no government has so far been able to stop their blatant misuse," Maria said. "Everyone knows how these laws are used as a tool for settling personal disputes, and now the FSC has taken this skeleton out of the closet after so many years."
This story first appeared at Morning Star News (www.MorningStarNews.org), a California-based independent news service focusing on the persecution of Christians worldwide. Used by permission.
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