Blasphemy laws invite abuse but clerics resist amendment

Kashif Khan

When Ashiq Nabi was murdered by his own villagers late last month, he became just another addition to the list of Pakistanis killed in the name of religion.

An unemployed labourer in his 30s and father of four children, Nabi reportedly tore and threw away a copy of the Koran when his wife tried to get him to swear by it during a heated family squabble.

Shocked and furious over her husband's actions, the wife broke the news to her cousins. The news soon spread, triggering rage among the illiterate villagers. The local cleric declared Nabi an infidel and charged him with blasphemy, a crime punishable by death.

Soon, a crowd of more than 400 angry villagers and students from the religious seminaries was at Nabi's door.

Fearing for his life, Nabi fled the scene, but the mob chased him through the fields throwing stones at him. A terrified Nabi finally managed to seek refuge up a tree, pleading for his life before someone among the crowd pulled out a gun and shot him dead.

The horrific incident in Spin Khak, a little town in Northwest Frontier Province 120km south of Islamabad, shows how Pakistan's much-criticised blasphemy law remains open to abuse by those pursuing a personal vendetta.

'It is beyond imagination that such an incident can take place in the 21st century,' said Asma Jahangir, lawyer and former chairman of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission.

Scores of Pakistanis are convicted each year under blasphemy laws, often under false accusations and with deficient proof. And though none of the convicted has ever been executed, mobs have killed several of the accused.

Human rights activists say the law's vague definition of blasphemy and the defective procedure of filing reports have opened the door to false accusations against Muslims and members of Pakistan's religious minorities.

Introduced by Pakistan's former military president General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, the blasphemy laws make desecration of the Koran or a derogatory remark about it punishable by life imprisonment.

Bail is usually denied for those charged with blasphemy. Trials are expensive and can last for years. This encourages people to take the law into their hands.

President Pervez Musharraf has voiced the possibility of amending the process to discourage false accusations. However, severe protests by powerful conservative clerics led him to change his mind.

Political observers believe General Musharraf's task of reforming society along more liberal lines has been made difficult by incidents such as the alleged desecration of the Koran by US soldiers.

Under fire for its support of the US in the 'war on terrorism', General Musharraf's government is facing mounting pressure from religious parties who continue to hold countrywide demonstrations to mark their disgust at the supposed desecration of their holy book.

'The forces against Musharraf's philosophy of enlightened moderation will try to exploit the issue in order to extract more concessions from him,' said Talat Masood, a retired general and political analyst in Islamabad.