Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law, which has seen Christians imprisoned awaiting execution, and innocent people murdered by vigilantes, may soon be tightened up to stop abuse.
A draft bill will shortly be put before the Pakistan government for approval. The proposed law will introduce severe penalties for people who make false accusations of blasphemy. It will also aim to stop vigilantes taking the law into their own hands.
Last November a Christian couple, Shahbhaz and Shama Masih, who were accused of blasphemy were burned to death in a brick kiln furnace where they were working. They were later proved innocent.
Under the proposed legislation it would be necessary to prove someone’s intention to commit an act of blasphemy, a legal concept known as “mens rea”, from the Latin for “guilty mind”. This is not the case with the current blasphemy legislation, known by some as the “black law”.
Nasir Saeed, director of the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), an interdenominational organisation working for Christians in Pakistan, said: “If the new bill is passed and the National Police Bureau’s recommendations are accepted then they will bring landmark changes.
“Although we may not see immediate changes and people may still continue taking the law into their hands, if this draft is approved and implemented properly, it will have a long term impact on Christians’ lives and will hopefully ultimately mean that no innocent person of any faith will be falsely charged or killed for a crime they never committed,” he said.
The most stringent elements of the blasphemy law, which includes life imprisonment or the death penalty for insulting the Koran, the Prophet Muhammad and Islam, were introduced in 1986 by Pakistan’s then dictator Zia ul Haq without passing through parliament.
“The Christian community is under constant attack and consider themselves a main target, and the root cause of their persecution is the blasphemy law,” said Mr Saeed.
Previous attempts to reform the blasphemy law have sometimes resulted in the death of the campaigners, including Catholic minister Shahbhaz Bhatti.