Blasphemy laws in Pakistan: where citizen becomes executioner

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan: where citizen becomes executioner

James McLaren | 10 December 2021

In the global movement against the death penalty, abolitionists will understandably focus their attention on official judicial executions. Less examined, however, are people who, after being accused of a crime, are killed extra-judicially—incidents where the citizen becomes the executioner. An illuminating example of this phenomenon is Pakistan and the experiences of those accused of blasphemy in the country. Indeed, on 3 December 2021 in Sialkot, Priyantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan, was beaten to death and set ablaze by a mob in an incident local media linked to an allegation of blasphemy.

Marking 2021 Human Rights Day, Eleos Justice, DFAT and the European Delegation to Australia hosted a webinar to unpack the root causes of such violence and the possibility of reform. Invited speakers included Peter Jacob, Executive Director of the Centre for Social Justice (Pakistan), and filmmaker Mohammed Naqvi, the director of the documentary film The Accused: Damned or Devoted.

Section 295C of Pakistan’s Penal Code makes it a criminal offence to use derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet, prescribing a punishment of death or imprisonment for life. In 2020, according to a report released by the Centre for Social Justice Pakistan (CSJ), the use of blasphemy laws has increased exponentially in the country, with 200 people being formally accused last year—the highest number of formal accusations in a single year to date. Between 1987 and 2020, at least 1,855 people have been accused of blasphemy in the country, with CSJ finding that an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of them were from minority religious faiths. Although no person has been executed by the state for blasphemy, those accused live in constant fear of vigilante violence, with at least 81 such Pakistani people having been killed since 1994 in instances of mob violence.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have had significant political utility, as can be observed in the documentary film The Accused: Damned or Devoted? (2020) directed by Naqvi. The film skilfully depicts the devastating consequences of the blasphemy laws, as well as their exploitation by politicians. Cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, in order to win the support of the religious right in the 2018 general election,  promoted stricter adherence to sharia and supported the idea that blasphemers should be punished by death. The film follows those victimised by accusations of blasphemy, showing the threats of violence and murder that they have had to face and, in the most tragic of circumstances, detailing instances in which such threats were carried out. The film also shows the violence those who speak up against blasphemy laws face, including the assassination of Salman Taseer, the then governor of Punjab.  Although the film has been widely screened in Europe, Naqvi, in the webinar, explained that ‘it would be impossible to screen the film in Pakistan,’ largely because it would endanger him, the crew who made the film and the victims who are shown in the film.

In 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for a review of Pakistan’s GSP+ status over the abuse of its blasphemy laws.  The European Union’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) removes import duties from products coming into the EU market on countries who adopt to international values and principles. The 2021 resolution, deeply concerned with the ‘alarming’ rise in blasphemy accusations, as well as with the increasing number of attacks on journalists and civil society organisations, called on Pakistan’s government to ‘unequivocally condemn’ incitements to violence and discrimination against religious minorities in the country. In response to this, however, Pakistan’s Foreign Office Spokesperson declared that the EU Parliament’s resolution ‘reflects a lack of understanding in the context of blasphemy laws and associated sensitivities in Pakistan,’ exemplifying the government’s firm, adamant embrace of blasphemy laws.

During the webinar, Jacob emphasised the need for law reform: a legislative review of blasphemy laws should be undertaken, noting that such a recommendation was made previously by the Gojra Judicial Inquiry, an inquiry which, in 2009, investigated a series of riots, inspired by a wrongful allegation of blasphemy, that resulted in the deaths of eight Christians. Jacob also stressed that law reform alone is not enough, stressing the need for a broad national narrative to promote freedom of religion in the social life of Pakistan. To do so, he called for all stakeholders to take a more serious stance against the killings that have taken place to date and create a shared narrative. He proposed that all political parties and civil society should unite ‘to undo the impact of blasphemy laws on national psyche and social fabric of Pakistan’.

The decision by Prime Minister Imran Khan to oversee an investigation of Kumara’s murder and hold his assailants accountable by full and fair operation of criminal justice processes is a positive development. While a distinction can be drawn between the State carrying out the death penalty and civilians engaged in vigilantism, as long as blasphemy remains a capital offence, it serves as an official declaration by the State that blasphemers deserve to die. An official investigation of Kumara’s murder must be followed by legal and educational reform in ending the climate of fear and the impunity with which blasphemy-related violence is committed.