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Pakistan could amend blasphemy law

The law will provide death penalty for non-Muslims convicted of insulting Islam and the Prophet.

india Updated: Dec 24, 2006 21:36 IST

Pakistan may amend its controversial blasphemy law, that provides for death penalty for non-Muslims convicted of insulting Islam and the Prophet and has frequently been misused over the last two decades.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz could make an announcement on Christmas eve on Sunday, media reports said.

State Minster for Information Tariq Azeem had on Saturday hinted that Pakistan's minorities - Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Ahmediyas - would receive "good news" this Christmas in the form of a "review" and possible amendments to laws that they consider discriminatory, such as the blasphemy law, The Daily Times saidon Sunday.

Azim did not give details, it said.

Minorities constitute about three per cent of the 165 million population of Pakistan, half of them Christians.

The Ahmediyas, who were declared non-Muslim in 1974, stand to benefit too.

The Blasphemy Law was introduced in the Pakistan Penal Code as Section 295-C in 1986. Under this section, any person guilty of defiling the name of the Prophet Muhammad was made liable to suffer life imprisonment or death.

In 1991, the alternative of life imprisonment was removed under the direction of the federal Shariat court - accordingly the only penalty applicable now is death. It was subsequently upturned by the Supreme Court.

The law stipulates that any person who "by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly" defiles the name of the Prophet, is liable to be tried for blasphemy.

In additional to a fine, he shall be punished with the death sentence or imprisonment for life.

This would be President Musharraf's second attempt to change the controversial law, ostensibly in keeping with his current political line advocating "enlightened moderation" and presenting "a soft and humane" face of Pakistan to the world.

He had dropped an earlier attempt in 2000 after protests from the Muslim clergy and the conservatives.

His success in affecting a substantial change in the controversial law could make him more acceptable to the western world that has taken a dim view of Pakistan's human rights records, especially when it comes to the religious minorities.

However, it would add to the opposition he is facing, especially from the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), the principal Islamist rightwing alliance that is preparing for the elections Musharraf has promised to holdin 2007.

Musharraf has already changed the law pertaining to women, providing a measure of relief in cases pertaining to rape and adultery, and has announced more legal reforms aimed at doing away with social practices weighed against women.

In 1990, the federal Shari'at court ruled that the penalty for blasphemy should be mandatory death sentence, with no right to reprieve or pardon. The decision of the Shari'at court is binding but the Pakistani government has so far failed to pass the necessary bill to amend the law. Hence the current situation is that the clause 'or life imprisonment' is void, even though the Pakistani government has often used this anomaly to defend itself against critics of the death penalty.

For long a matter of concern of human rights bodies across the world, the blasphemy issue got highlighted when Bishop John Joseph, Roman Catholic Bishop of Faisalabad and an ardent spokesman for peace and inter-religious dialogue, shot himself on May 5, 1998.

He shot himself right in front of the iron gate of the sessions court of Sahiwal, which convicted Ayub Masih, a Christian, on charges of blasphemy and sentenced him to death on April 27, 1998.

First Published: Dec 24, 2006 20:32 IST