New ruling finds false allegations of blasphemy ‘equally detestable’ to criminal offense.
The Supreme Court has called on the state to ensure that hundreds of people facing imprisonment, or execution under its controversial blasphemy laws, have not been falsely charged, especially by enemies wanting to settle personal scores.
Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in Pakistan, an Islamic republic of some 200 million, with even unproven allegations provoking mob lynchings and violence. Critics including European governments claim the country’s laws against blasphemy are misused, with hundreds languishing in jails under false charges that could see them face fines, life imprisonment or death by hanging.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued a detailed judgment warning that in Islam a false accusation can be as serious as the blasphemy itself.
The judgment came just weeks after its historic ruling upholding the death sentence for Mumtaz Qadri, a former bodyguard who was feted by Islamists after he gunned down a politician who had been calling for blasphemy law reform.
Moderates had hailed the Qadri ruling as a blow against religious extremism, and on Tuesday the Supreme Court appeared to take another step in that direction.
Blasphemy is “abhorrent and immoral,” the judgment said, “but at the same time a false allegation regarding commission of such an offence is equally detestable besides being culpable.”
“It is, therefore, for the State of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to ensure that no innocent person is compelled or constrained to face an investigation or a trial on the basis of false or trumped up allegations regarding commission of such an offence,” the ruling continued.
Qadri shot then governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, in broad daylight in Islamabad in 2011. Taseer had called for reforms to the blasphemy legislation and promised to help Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who has been on death row for five years for blasphemy after an argument with a Muslim woman over a bowl of water.
In its judgment on Tuesday the Supreme Court also said that calls for blasphemy law reform “ought not to be mistaken as a call for doing away with that law.” Instead they should be seen as a call for introducing “adequate safeguards” against “malicious application” of the law.
On Wednesday, 500 activists from Islamist groups Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP) and Jamaat Ahle Sunnat held a rally in Peshawar to denounce the Supreme Court’s Qadri verdict. In a speech inciting vigilantism, cleric Mufti Meraj-ud-Din of the JUP said that if Qadri is executed those responsible should also be put to death.