Not all voices of sanity silenced
IN cases where the verdict is presumed before trial and the death sentence is considered mandatory, the court becomes only a theatre where political considerations determine what will be presented in court and what will be decided by judges.
On February 23, the Appellate Court of Lahore, Pakistan, overturned the verdict of Judge Majahid Hussain, who had found 14-year-old Selamat Masih and his co-accused Rehmat Masih, guilty of the offence of blasphemy.
The Appellate Court's decision showed that all is not completely lost in Pakistan as far as independence of the judiciary is concerned. In January, 1993, the additional secessions judge of Karachi, M. S. Kalida Yasin, acquitted Chand Barkat, a Christian bangle seller, of blasphemy. This was the first blasphemy acquittal in Pakistan. Judge Yasin defended her decision by saying that in Islam, if there was the slightest doubt of guilt, it should 'be resolved in favour of the accused'. This position was restated in the February 23 acquittals this year.
These trials arose because of political pressure based on narrow religious grounds. Many Pakistanis were incensed by this and saw it as a display of intolerance. The democratic spirit nurtured during the independence struggle in the first half of this century, is still alive, in spite of attempts by some to distort religion and use it for militaristic purposes.
In spite of being acquitted, Chand Barkat had to flee the country. Gul Mih who was acquitted of a blasphemy charge in December, 1994, after an initial verdict of guilt in 1992, which kept him on death row for two years, also fled, as did the two Masihs. The murder of Manzoor Masih, in April 1994, outside his lawyer's office is still vivid in people's memories.
Fortunately, there are voices of sanity - the judges I have mentioned and other judges like Dorap Patel, the former Chief Justice of Pakistan. And there is also the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. They symbolise the spirit of democracy, a spirit which has deep roots in Pakistan. A great many Indians and Pakistanis gave their lives in defence of that spirit.
Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto has promised, on several occasions, to repeal the blasphemy law (Section 295/C of the Pakistani Penal Code). I hope she keeps her promise in the very near future.
BASIL FERNANDO Executive Director Asian Human Rights Commission