Wednesday, February 1, 2017
Business Recorder editorial Feb 1, 2017
Safeguards against false blasphemy accusations In the kind of twist that we have become accustomed to in such cases, an anti-terrorism court in Lahore has acquitted 115 people charged with looting and torching around 200 Christians’ houses in Joseph Colony, Badami Bagh, Lahore in March 2013. A Christian resident of the Colony, Sawan Masih, was accused of blasphemy and an enraged 3,000-strong mob rampaged through the area, ransacking and torching the houses of residents who had already fled their homes, fearing just such an attack. This fortunately meant no loss of life. The case against the perpetrators as usual crawled through the courts over four years, during which all the accused were freed on bail. Now they have been let off altogether. In contrast, the blasphemy accused, Sawan Masih, was put on trial and sentenced to death within a year. The skewed nature of our judicial system is laid bare by these simple facts. But it is not only the courts where blasphemy accused are denied justice. Especially where minority communities are concerned, any such allegation tossed around against a member of that community (usually from the local pulpit), visits the wrath of God on the community as a whole, as the Joseph Colony incident and a long list of shame such as Gojra, Sangla Hill, Shanti Nagar and others bear witness. The role of the police in the Joseph Colony affair, given the background of motivated vested interests at work, bears reflection. Joseph Colony nestles amidst a steel market, whose owners wanted to buy out the long time residents of the Colony. When they refused, a conspiracy was hatched to blacken the community by accusing Sawan Masih of blasphemy, in order to rouse a violent mob to burn down the Colony. The motive transparently was to so frighten the inhabitants that they would not dare return. The acquittal of the 115 accused in the case will naturally demoralise and cause dismay not only in the Christian community, but also other minority communities threatened by similar hate crimes. To return to the role of the police, all they did was warn the residents to clear out for fear of an attack, without lifting a finger to prevent the looting and burning. The prosecution could not produce a convincing case, particularly since 63 prosecution witnesses refused to recognize the accused in court. It takes little imagination to guess what kind of intimidation was at work to produce such a collective ‘amnesia’. The blasphemy law has been raised to the status of a holy cow by the right wing religious extremist lobby. Attempts in the past to have the law reviewed as to its blemishes resulted in the murders of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti, while the former’s assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, has been ‘deified’ by this same lobby. Parliament too has been unable to amend or provide safeguards for blasphemy accused against its abuse, usually for mundane material and worldly reasons. As a convenient tool to intimidate minorities and dissenters, the blasphemy law has no equal in our statute books. Unfortunately, even this government, quavering before the threatened violence of the extremist religious lobby, has been at pains in the person of Finance Minister Ishaq Dar to deny it intends to touch the blasphemy law. In another example of the malign purposes to which the law lends itself, the missing bloggers who have returned (although the picture of whether all have or not is still murky) have had further agony piled onto their frightening experience of being disappeared by a case of blasphemy registered against them. It may be of interest to note that blasphemous material appeared on their (obviously hacked) blogs and websites after they disappeared! What a country, what a sorry society. Even if the politicians are too frightened of the religious extremists to contemplate changes in the blasphemy law itself, they owe it as a duty to the state and society, not to mention the minorities (although Muslims too run the risk of being on the receiving end of blasphemy accusations), to provide safeguards against the misuse and abuse of the blasphemy law for vested interests by providing punishments for false accusation. Can we hope for such a glimmer of even limited courage from our elected representatives?