Global Human Rights Defence

Pakistan National Flag. Source: © Syed Wasiq Shah/Pixabay, 2015

Author: Kirsten O’Connell


Pakistan’s laws on “offences related to religion”, also known as blasphemy laws”, include a variety of criminal charges, such as “defiling the Holy Quran”, deliberately outraging religious sentiment, and using derogatory remarks in respect of the Prophet Muhammad (International Commission of Jurists, 2015). The principle within these laws is to protect Islam against offence, disrespect and harassment and to maintain community respect for its religious values and practices. The criteria for establishing criminal charges against a person accused of blasphemy are subject to what the Pakistani courts regard as offensive (Ahmed & Gulrajani, 2020). The penalties for blasphemy in Pakistan can be severe, as the sentences can range from fines to long term imprisonment, and in case of defaming the Prophet Muhammad, a mandatory death sentence (International Commission of Jurists, 2015). Thus, there is a real possibility that charges can be applied indiscriminately and harshly, especially when Pakistan has an ideological local community that violently seeks revenge against those accused (Ahmed & Gulrajani, 2020).

Since the implementation of these laws, they are often misused and have been denounced by Pakistani civil society activists, human rights groups, academics and even members of the government and judiciary (International Commission of Jurists, 2015). It is often members of religious minorities and people with mental illness that are accused of blasphemy. The danger of abuse is heightened, however, when a mentally ill person is accused or charged under these blasphemy laws because the person concerned may lack the mental capacity to understand what they did and why it was wrong. Thus, many Forensic Psychiatrists maintain that a person accused of blasphemy must receive protection within the criminal justice system when it is established that they are mentally ill (Ahmed & Gulrajani, 2020). This article, therefore, will explore how the link between these blasphemy laws and mental illness is a fundamental human rights issue in Pakistan.


Pakistan inherited its blasphemy laws from its former British colonial rulers when it gained independence in 1947. The State was formed after the British partitioned the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan, basing its action primarily on the geographical distribution of Hindus and Muslims (Ahmed & Gulrajani, 2020). The British originally enacted blasphemy laws in the Indian subcontinent in 1860 (Sections 295 – 298 of the Penal Code) that are still existing today. They also enacted further laws (Section 295-A of the Penal Code) in 1927 to ease religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims (International Commission of Jurists, 2015).

It is worth noting that, during this period up until 1977, there were only ten  reported judgements      related to religious offences (International Commission of Jurists, 2015). In its earliest iteration, the law did not discriminate between any religions, but the later revisions of blasphemy laws have had a tendency to primarily protect the values and beliefs of Muslims (Kuru, 2021). There have been several military coups that weakened the democratic and civil institutions in Pakistan. As a result, the country has been solidified as a religious state (Ahmed & Gulrajani, 2020).

In 1974, during Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s term of office, the parliament amended the Constitution of Pakistan to declare that any person who does not recognise Muhammad as the final Prophet      in Islam, is not Muslim. The second constitutional amendment was to declare members of the Ahmadiyya community as a non-Muslim religious minority. They are a religious sect within Islam whose founder claimed to be the Messiah, but whose members still believe in Islam (Ahmed & Gulrajani, 2020).

Moreover, in 1977, General Muhammad Zia-Ul-Haq became President of Pakistan, triggering another military coup. Immediately after he took office, he set out to make major changes in the Penal Code of Pakistan (PPC), ushering in a period of “Islamization” (International Commission of Jurists, 2015). Any material he believed went against his strict interpretation of Islam, was thrown out, even from libraries and school textbooks. He even amended the Constitution of Pakistan to guarantee the right to free speech, unless it offends Islam, goes against the States’ interest or runs contrary to preserving public order, morality and decency (Ahmed & Gulrajani, 2020).

The Penal Code of Pakistan (PPC) was amended to define blasphemy offences relating to religion. The laws range from the defilement of places of worship (punishable by a two-year prison sentence or a fine, or both, Section 295 of the Penal Code) to insulting the Prophet Muhammad by written or spoken word or by visible representation (punishable by death or life imprisonment and a fine, Section 295 – C of the Penal Code). It also further prohibits insulting Muhammad by innuendo or insinuation, and where the language used does not require proof of blasphemous intent (Ahmed & Gulrajani, 2020).

What is most concerning is that there is no penalty for making a false accusation of blasphemy in Pakistan (Ahmed & Gulrajani, 2020). This heightens the risk of people, like mentally ill persons, being accused of blasphemy without sufficient evidence being given to the authorities. It is also worth noting that in many cases, the person accused is often assaulted or killed while being held in police custody. This demonstrates the fundamental human rights issue in Pakistan regarding its blasphemy laws because even the authorities fail to protect the accused and, in some cases, they themselves have reportedly been the perpetrators (International Commission of Jurists, 2015).  

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The definition of blasphemy is the act of insulting God (Ahmed & Gulrajani, 2020). In Islam, the Holy Quran does not describe punishment for blasphemous actions, making these laws within Pakistan contradictory (Basak, 2022). In Christianity, the Holy Bible condemns blasphemy as sinful, and the penalty in the Old Testament is death by stoning (New King James Version, 1798/1982);

         “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him.” (New King James Version, 1798/1982)

In Judaism, the Torah condemns blasphemy as well, and the penalty is also by stoning (Basak, 2022);

“Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone him. Anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death.” (Basak, 2022)

In Islam, however, the Holy Quran asks its followers to respond to the blasphemer with peace or just walk away (Basak, 2022);

“The true servants of the most compassionate are those who walk on earth humbly, and when the foolish address them improperly, they only respond with peace.” (Basak, 2022)

If the Holy Quran gives no instruction to Muslims to commit violence against people, then why is it happening? It appears to occur from the actions of individuals themselves. This is especially true when the Federal Shariat Court of Pakistan (FSC) ruled in 1990 that the death penalty was mandatory for the use of derogatory remarks in respect of the Prophet Muhammad (Section 295-C of the Penal Code) (International Commission of Jurists, 2015). The court’s judgement was based on the Sunnah, a collection of sayings, practices and silent approvals of the Prophet Muhammad (Basak, 2022).

Furthermore, these blasphemy laws in Pakistan are also contradictory with Pakistan’s obligations under international law, including the right to equal protection before the law, as according to the International Commission of Jurists. Pakistan has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which means Pakistan is required, both under the ICCPR and under general international law, to give domestic effect to its provisions. Additionally, UN officials have expressed, through their visits to Pakistan, that these blasphemy laws serve only the interest of extremists and are also contradictory to the Constitution of Pakistan (International Commission of Jurists, 2015).

Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws and Mental Illness:

In February 2022, Muhammad Mushtaq was killed by a crowd of vigilantes after he was accused of burning pages of the Holy Quran. The family of Muhammad said he was mentally ill (Nigeria, 2022). The Prime Minister’s Special Representative even said the family told him he had been mentally ill for 15 years. The police were notified of the accusation against Muhammad and arrested him on the 12th of February, but while he was in their custody, a crowd managed to take him. When the police finally found him, he was      dead and tied to a tree. He was subjected to extreme violence, as suspects hit him with batons, irons, sticks and bricks (Aljazeera, 2022).

It is not the only case that shows how people were charged with blasphemy laws, thus violating their fundamental human rights. In 2021, Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana, a 49 year old Sri Lankan man was lynched by a mob on December 3, in Sialkot, Punjab, over allegations of blasphemy (Al Jazeera, 2021). In 2020, a Pakistani Christian women and her son were brutally killed by a mob in Kather Kalan village in Gujranwala over allegations of blasphemy (OpIndia, 2020). In 2017, university student Mashal Khan was lynched by a mob after he was accused of posting blasphemous content online. In 2014, a Christian couple were lynched then burned in a kiln in Punjab, after being falsely accused of desecrating the Holy Quran (Al Jazeera, 2021). These laws have existed since 1860 and still exist today, when they are clearly contradictory to Pakistan’s human rights obligations. There is an issue with the Penal Code of Pakistan, which provisions concerning blasphemy are contradictory to the Holy Quran. There is also a persistent problem of the local community making accusations of blasphemy against people without providing evidence and the absence of      penalties for making false accusations.  As a result, when a person, like Muhammad, is accused, that individual  is often killed by crowds of vigilantes before any formal proceedings begin.

There are protections for such people, as the Pakistan Code of Criminal Procedures 1898 declares that a person of “unsound mind” who is incapable of assisting his defence cannot be tried (Section 464) (Ahmed & Gulrajani, 2020). Pakistan also has an insanity defence where the accused cannot be held criminally responsible for an act, if at the time of committing it, the individual was incapable of understanding the nature of the act as wrong or illegal (Section 84) (International Commission of Jurists, 2015). Moreover, in 2015, a provincial court made it mandatory for someone accused of blasphemy to receive psychiatric assessment and treatment (Ahmed & Gulrajani, 2020). Additionally, on      February 9, 2021, the Pakistani Supreme Court recognised prisoners with mental illnesses as the most vulnerable and not eligible for the death penalty (Hashim, 2021).

However, these legal protections remain unsuccessful as mentally ill persons continue to be the target of lynching’s, and the medical professionals that help them are threatened by mobs (International Commission of Jurists, 2015). This seems to be the  result of Pakistan’s endorsement of the death penalty to those accused of sacrilege against Islam. Even those at parliamentary level who seek to address the issue are threatened, which creates a reluctance to address the issue due to the fear that even the slightest criticism could be deemed blasphemous (International Commission of Jurists, 2015).


  1. Conclusion

To conclude, mentally ill people are highly vulnerable to blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Consequently, cases like Muhammad Mushtaq will continue to occur if changes are not made. These laws contradict Pakistan’s international legal obligations, and they have detrimental effects when they are linked to mentally ill people. The International Commission of Jurists recommends Pakistan to reconsider the existence of these laws; and      to either repeal them or significantly amend them (International Commission of Jurists, 2015).

They also recommend Pakistan to at least address and take a range of measures to deal with the defects in the blasphemy laws, including the shortcomings at investigative and procedural levels, given that the laws      are inconsistent with human rights laws, particularly the ICCPR ratified by Pakistan. Lastly,  Pakistan is also urged to deal with its ideological biases that influence these crowds of vigilantes that make false and malicious accusations, and to deal with the level of violence and reprisals against those accused, their families, communities and lawyers (International Commission of Jurists, 2015).


Middle East Countries in the World Map. Source: © Lara Jameson/Pexels, 2021

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Ahmed, A., & Gulrajani, C. (2020). Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws and the Role of Forensic Psychiatrists. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 1-5

Al Jazeera. (2022, February 13). Pakistan mob lynches man over blasphemy allegation: Police. Crime News | Al Jazeera. Retrieved March 9, 2022, from  

Basak, S. (2022, February 14). Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws: Colonial and Inconsistent With Quran. The Quint. Retrieved from The Quint:

International Commission of Jurists. (2015). On Trial: The Implementation of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws. International Commission of Jurists.

Kuru, A. T. (2021, December 10). Understanding the history and politics behind Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The Conversation. Retrieved from The Conversation:

New King James Version. (1798/1982). Holy Bible. Thomas Nelson.

Nigeria, G. (2022, February 13). Lynch mob stones mentally ill man to death in Pakistan. The Guardian. Retrieved from The Guardian:

Hashim, A. (2021, December 6). Lynched Sri Lankan man’s family seeks justice from Pakistan. Religion News | Al Jazeera. Retrieved March 10, 2022, from  

Staff, O. (2020, November 10). Pakistan: Christian mother and her son brutally lynched to death by an Islamist mob over blasphemy. OpIndia. Retrieved March 10, 2022, from








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Coordinator - Tibet Team

Mandakini graduated with honours from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. Her team analyses the human rights violations faced by Tibetans through a legal lens.

Kenza Mena
Team Coordinator -China

Kenza Mena has expertise in international criminal law since she is currently pursuing a last-year Master’s degree in International Criminal Justice at Paris II Panthéon-Assas and obtained with honors cum laude an LLM in International and Transnational Criminal Law from the University of Amsterdam. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in French and Anglo-American law. 

Since September 2021, she has been the coordinator of Team China at GHRD, a country where violations of human rights, even international crimes, are frequently perpetrated by representatives of the State. Within Team China, awareness is also raised on discrimination that Chinese women and minorities in the country and, more generally, Chinese people around the world are facing.

Kenza believes that the primary key step to tackle atrocities perpetrated around the world is advocacy and promotion of human rights.

Aimilina Sarafi
Pakistan Coordinator

Aimilina Sarafi holds a Bachelor’s degree cum laude in International Relations and Organisations from Leiden University and is currently pursuing a Double Legal Master’s degree (LLM) in Public International Law and International Criminal Law at the University of Amsterdam.
She is an active advocate for the human rights of all peoples in her community and is passionate about creating a better world for future generations. Aimilina is the coordinator for the GHRD team of Pakistan, in which human rights violations of minority communities in Pakistan are investigated and legally evaluated based on international human rights legal standards.
Her team is working on raising awareness on the plight of minority communities such as women, children, religious and ethnic minorities within Pakistan.

Lukas Mitidieri
Coordinator & Head Researcher- Bangladesh

Lucas Mitidieri is currently pursuing his bachelor’s degree in International Relations at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). As the GHRD Bangladesh Team Coordinator, he advocates for human rights and monitors violations across all minorities and marginalized groups in Bangladesh. Lucas believes that the fight for International Human Rights is the key to a world with better social justice and greater equality.

Nicole Hutchinson
Editorial Team Lead

Nicole has an MSc in International Development Studies with a focus on migration. She is passionate about promoting human rights and fighting poverty through advocacy and empowering human choice. Nicole believes that even the simplest social justice efforts, when properly nurtured, can bring about radical and positive change worldwide.

Gabriela Johannen
Coordinator & Head Researcher – India

Gabriela Johannen is a lawyer admitted to the German bar and holds extensive knowledge in the fields of human rights, refugee law, and international law. After working for various courts and law firms in her home country, she decided to obtain an LL.M. degree from Utrecht University where she studied Public International Law with a special focus on Human Rights. Additionally, while working as a pro-bono legal advisor for refugees, she expanded her knowledge in the fields of refugee law and migration.

Gabriela is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD India, a country, she has had a personal connection with since childhood. Her primary focus is to raise awareness for the severe human rights violations against minorities and marginalized groups that continue to occur on a daily basis in India. By emphasizing the happenings and educating the general public, she hopes to create a better world for future generations.

João Victor
Coordinator & Head Researcher – International Justice

João Victor is a young Brazilian lawyer who leads our team of International Justice and Human Rights. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and possesses over 5 years of experience in dealing with Human Rights and International Law issues both in Brazil and internationally, including the protection of refugees’ rights and the strengthening of accountability measures against torture crimes.

João has an extensive research engagement with subjects related to International Justice in general, and more specifically with the study of the jurisprudence of Human Rights Courts regarding the rise of populist and anti-terrorist measures taken by national governments. He is also interested in the different impacts that new technologies may provoke on the maintenance of Human Rights online, and how enforcing the due diligence rules among private technology companies might secure these rights against gross Human Rights violations.

Célinne Bodinger
Environment and Human Rights Coordinator

As the Environment and Human Rights Coordinator, Célinne is passionate about the health of our planet and every life on it.

Angela Roncetti
Team Coordinator and Head Researcher- South America

Angela holds a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) from Vitória Law School (FDV) in Brazil. Her research combines more than five years of experience conducting debates and studies on the rights of homeless people, the elderly, children, and refugees. Besides that, she also volunteers in a social project called Sou Diferente (I am Different in English), where she coordinates and takes part in actions aimed at the assistance and the emancipation of vulnerable groups in the cities of the metropolitan area of Espírito Santo state (Brazil).

Lina Borchardt
Team Head (Promotions)

She is currently heading the Promotions Team and University Chapter of Global Human Rights Defence. Her background is the one of European and International Law, which I am studying in The Hague. She has previously gained experience at Women´s Rights organizations in Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey over the past years.
She has been working for Global Human Rights Defence in the Netherlands since 2020. Her focus now is concentrated on the Human Rights and Minorities Film Festival and the cooperation of GHRD with students across the country.

Pedro Ivo Oliveira
Team Coordinator and Researcher

Pedro holds an extensive background in Human Rights, especially in Global Health, LGBTQ+ issues, and HIV and AIDS. He is currently finishing his Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations and Affairs at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Moreover, he successfully attended the Bilingual Summer School in Human Rights Education promoted by the Federal University of Minas Gerais and the Association of Universities of the Montevideo Group. Besides, Pedro Ivo has a diversified professional background, collecting experiences in many NGOs and projects.

With outstanding leadership abilities, in 2021, Pedro Ivo was the Secretary-General of the 22nd edition of the biggest UN Model in Latin America: the MINIONU. Fluent in Portuguese, English, and Spanish, Pedro Ivo is the Team Coordinator and Head Researcher of the Team Africa at Global Human Rights Defence. Hence, his focus is to empower his team from many parts of the world about the Human Rights Situation in the African continent, meanwhile having a humanized approach.

Alessandro Cosmo
GHRD Youth Ambassador
(European Union)

Alessandro Cosmo obtained his B.A. with Honors from Leiden University College where he studied International Law with a minor in Social and Business Entrepreneurship. He is currently pursuing an LL.M. in Public International Law at Utrecht University with a specialization in Conflict and Security. 
As GHRD’s E.U. Youth Ambassador, Alessandro’s two main focuses are to broaden the Defence’s reach within E.U. institutions and political parties, as well as mediate relations between human rights organizations abroad seeking European funding. 
Alessandro believes that human rights advocacy requires grass-roots initiatives where victims’ voices are amplified and not paraphrased or spoken for. He will therefore act on this agenda when representing Global Human Rights Defence domestically and abroad

Veronica Delgado
Team Coordinator and Researcher- Japan, Sri Lanka & Tibet

Veronica is a Colombian lawyer who leads our team of Japan, Sri Lanka and Tibet. She holds a master’s degree in Public International Law from Utrecht University. She has experience in Colombian law firms. Here she represented clients before constitutional courts. She also outlined legal concepts to state entities such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ombudsman’s Office on international law issues.

Veronica has an extensive research background with subjects related to public international law. She worked as an assistant researcher for more than two years for the Externado University of Colombia. Here she undertook in-depth research on constitutional, business, and human rights law issues. She was involved with consultancy services with the Colombian Army regarding transitional justice. 

Wiktoria Walczyk
Coordinator & Head Researcher (Nepal & Indonesia)

Wiktoria Walczyk has joined GHRD in June 2020 as a legal intern. She is currently coordinator and head researcher of Team Nepal and Indonesia. She has an extensive legal knowledge concerning international human rights and is passionate about children’s and minorities’ rights. Wiktoria has obtained her LL.B. in International & European Law and she specialised in Public International Law & Human Rights at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. Moreover, she is pursuing her LL.M. in International & European Law and focusing on Modern Human Rights Law specialisation at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. In order to gain an essential legal experience, Wiktoria has also joined Credit Suisse’s 2021 General Counsel Graduate First Program where she is conducting her legal training and discovering the banking world. She would like to make a significant impact when it comes to the protection of fundamental human rights around the world, especially with regard to child labour. 

Fairuz Sewbaks
Coordinator and Head Researcher

Fairuz Sewbaks holds extensive legal knowledge regarding international human rights, with a specific focus on human rights dealings taking place in continental Africa. She holds a bachelor’s degree from The Hague University in public international law and international human rights and successfully followed advanced human rights courses at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. She furthermore participated in the Istanbul Summer School where she was educated about the role of epidemics and pandemics in light of human rights.


Fairuz is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD Africa. Her primary focus is to establish and coordinate long-term research projects regarding the differentiating human rights dealings of vulnerable and marginalized groups in continental Africa, as well as conducting individual research projects.

Priya Lachmansingh
Coordinator and Head Researcher, Political Advisor
(Asia & America)

Priya Lachmansingh is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in International & European
Law at the Hague University of Applied Science.
As GHRD’s Asia & America human rights coordinator and GHRD Political Advisor, Priya’s
prominent focus is to highlight human rights violations targeted against minority and
marginalized groups in Asia and America and to broaden GHRD reach within Dutch political
parties and as well seek domestic funding.

Jasmann Chatwal
Team Coordinator & Head Coordinator: North America

Jasmann is a political science student at Leiden University who joined GHRD in May 2021 as an intern in team Pakistan. Now, she is the team coordinator for North America and is responsible for coordinating the documentation of human rights violations in USA, Canada, and America.