PAKISTAN’S BLASPHEMY LAWS AND MENTAL ILLNESS
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 The British originally enacted blasphemy laws in the Indian subcontinent in 1860 (Sections 295 – 298 of the Penal Code) that are still existing today.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).
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).
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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 https://www.opindia.com/2020/11/pakistan-blasphemy-christian-islamists-yasmin-usman-masih/