By Eva-Maria Kolmann
In 1968, the so-called blasphemy law was enacted in Pakistan. By principle, the law protects all religions from offenses, but it provides for severe and draconian punishments to offenses and blasphemies against Islam: the desecration of the Koran is punishable by life imprisonment and an insult to the prophet Muhammad, with a death penalty. A simple suspicion or a statement would be enough to imprison a person and the burden of proof is borne by the accused, who is the one who must prove his innocence. In addition, the accuser will never repeat what the accused has allegedly said against the Qur’an or Islam because then he or she would also commit blasphemy. This makes it difficult to obtain sustainable proof and the problem is also that the allegations can be invented.
Furthermore, the Pakistani law of blasphemy does not provide for any distinction between voluntary and involuntary acts, which means that even a child or an illiterate person could be punished. For instance, if a child or an illiterate person would throw out an old newspaper that contained a verse of the Qur’an or if a mentally handicapped person would claim to be the prophet, Muhammed, they would be subject to the same punishment as someone that would deliberately insult the Qur’an and the prophet, according to what the law establishes.
So far no death penalty has been executed, but even when the accused is acquitted, usually after a long trial, it does not mean that the person is absolved by the community. When someone accused of blasphemy is released it is not safe for him or her anymore. There have been reported cases in which extremists take justice into their own hands. Between 1986 and 2010, 34 persons were lynched, among those more than half were not Muslim. A priest from Pakistan explains: “blasphemy is taken very seriously, meaning that it can cause a general commotion. It is like in the Middle Ages. When someone is accused of blasphemy, people are enraged; extremists assume that all the accused should be considered guilty and subject to punishment accordingly. Very often the burden of the verdict falls also on the judges. If a judge comes to the conclusion that a defendant is innocent it means that the accuser has lied. The judge might also be considered a bad Muslim for accusing a fellow Muslim of a lie. Some judges might be threatened, others might be even killed.” The priest points out that it would be very unlikely that they would repeal the law as it is a highly sensitive matter.
Oftentimes the pressure of foreigner countries can do more harm than good. When extremists get the attention they put even more pressure on the accused to receive the highest penalty possible. Pope Benedict XVI, on January 10, 2011, made a statement in favor of the repeal of the blasphemy law in Pakistan. The outcome was a riot inside the country. Muslim was very offended and they acted to further defend the honor of Islam and the Prophet.