Sherry submits bill to end death penalty for ‘blasphemers’


ISLAMABAD: Former information minister and PPP leader Sherry Rehman has submitted a private members’ bill with the National Assembly Secretariat, seeking an end to the death penalty for blasphemers. Important additions to the legislation include section 203A, which will ensure that “anyone making false or frivolous accusation under any of the sections 295A-C of the PPC shall be punished in accordance with similar punishments prescribed in the section under which the false accusation was made”. This should not only act as a deterrent for those intending to make false claims but also penalise those complainants who use the law for vendettas and settling scores.
Similarly, a new section 298E has been added. This makes any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination or violence an offence. Lending her support to Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death under the blasphemy law, the PPP lawmaker welcomed a stay order from the Lahore High Court against the sentence to Aasia.
“There is a need to amend the Blasphemy Law as there are still lacunas in the law, which enable minorities and vulnerable citizens to be targeted without fear of reprimand for false accusations,” Rehman said. Sherry is the president of the Jinnah Institute, which will hold a roundtable conference on Tuesday to engage academics, lawyers and other members of the civil society in an open discussion on the amendments to the Blasphemy Law.
The conference will highlight the recent case of Aasia Bibi and the blatant abuse of the legislation in bringing false claims against members of minority communities. Participants will include SCBA President Asma Jahangir, General Secretary of HRCP Hina Jilani, Anis Haroon, Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, Human Rights activist Ali Dayan Hasan, Dr Khalid Masood and Professor Ghaamdi.
The Blasphemy Law as set out in the Pakistan Penal Code, sections 295 and 298, finds its roots in the Colonial Law. “The amendment to the Blasphemy Laws Act is intended to ensure that all citizens of Pakistan have an equal right to constitutional protection and that miscarriages of justice in the name of blasphemy are avoided at all costs. The bill amends both the Pakistan Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure, the two main sources of criminal law. The aim is to amend the codes to ensure protection of Pakistan’s minorities and vulnerable citizens, who routinely face judgments and verdicts at the lower courts where mob pressure is often mobilised to obtain a conviction,” said a statement issued by Sherry’s office.
“The definition of the term blasphemy is currently vague, yet it carries a mandatory death sentence. Also, there are serious problems with the mechanisms to implement this law. The bill will rationalise the punishments prescribed for offences relating to religion provided under section 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code,” added the statement. “The most important changes the bill proposes are the abolition of the mandatory death penalty and life sentence on Section 295C, introduced by General Ziaul Haq. It calls for rationalising the procedure, which includes the concept of premeditation or intent. This means that anyone accused of blasphemy must be shown to have intent of committing the crime. The penalties for other offences related to religion will be reduced so that punishments are proportionate and any incentive to use these laws to settle scores is removed.” Another amendment proposes “that a court of sessions take cognisance of offences made under sections 295A-C so that the complainant takes full responsibility of the consequences in case the accusations are false or frivolous. Complaints under these sections must subsequently be tried by the high court, because trials by high courts are likely to strengthen the possibility for justice”.