People accused of violating Pakistan’s draconian ‘blasphemy laws’ face proceedings that are glaringly flawed, said the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in a new report published last week.
“Pakistan’s blasphemy laws fly in the face of Pakistan’s international legal obligations, including the duties to respect the rights of freedom of expression and freedom of religion and belief,” said Sam Zarifi, ICJ’s Asia Director. “But even worse, those facing accusations of blasphemy suffer through trials that are often fundamentally unfair.”
In the 60-page report On Trial: the Implementation of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws, the ICJ has documented in detail systematic and widespread fair trial violations in proceedings related to blasphemy offences in Pakistan, particularly in trial courts.
Some of the problems documented in the report include:
- Intimidation and harassment of judges and lawyers that impede on the independence of the judiciary and the right to a defence;
- Demonstrable bias and prejudice against defendants by judges during the course of blasphemy proceedings and in judgements;
- Violations of the right to effective assistance of counsel;
- Rejection of bail and prolonged pre-trial detention;
- Incompetent investigation and prosecution that do not meet due diligence requirements under the law;
- The prosecution and detention of people living with mental disabilities;
- Inhumane conditions of detention and imprisonment, including prolonged solitary confinement.
Pakistan’s laws on ‘offences related to religion’ – sections 295-298-C of the Penal Code that are commonly known as “blasphemy laws” – include a variety of crimes including misusing religious epithets, “defiling” the Holy Quran, deliberately outraging religious sentiment, and using derogatory remarks in respect of the Prophet Muhammad.
Sentences for these offences range from fines to long terms of imprisonment, and in the case of defamation of the Prophet Muhammad (section 295-C), a mandatory death sentence.
“Section 295 is a relic of the British colonial system that lends itself to human rights violations, including in Pakistan, India, Myanmar, and elsewhere,” Zarifi said. “In Pakistan, General Zia-ul-Haq made additions to the laws that made them truly draconian.”
Based on the analysis of over 100 judgements of the high courts and courts of first instance from 1986-2015 as well as interviews with defendants in blasphemy cases, their families, and defence counsel; judges, lawyers and police officials; and human rights activists, the report found:
- In 19 out of 25 cases under section 295-C (defamation of the Prophet Muhammad) studied by the ICJ, high courts have acquitted individuals convicted for blasphemy by trial courts. Glaring procedural irregularities and mala fide complaints are the grounds for acquittal on appeal in over 80 per cent of cases;
- Even in cases that ultimately result in acquittal, blasphemy proceedings suffer from undue delay – proceedings in trial courts can take on average three years, and appeals can take even longer, more than five years on average;
- Individuals accused of blasphemy under section 295-C are frequently denied bail even though they meet requirements under the law;
- Individuals detained pending trial or convicted for blasphemy are often kept in prolonged solitary confinement, at times, over a number of years.
The report also confirms concerns recently raised by the Supreme Court of Pakistan that individuals accused of blasphemy ‘suffer beyond proportion or repair’, in the absence of adequate safeguards against misapplication or misuse of such blasphemy laws, the Geneva-based organization says.
The ICJ has also made a number of recommendations to the Pakistani executive, legislative and judicial branches to address the defects in the framing of the blasphemy laws as well as of the shortcomings at the investigative, prosecutorial, procedural, administrative and judicial levels highlighted in the report to minimize the misuse of the blasphemy laws and ensure that those accused of blasphemy have a fair chance at defending themselves.
“It’s time Pakistan and other countries got rid of these noxious laws, which continue to stifle freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief, and instead promote extremism and intolerance,” Zarifi added.