(CNSNews.com) – Pakistan will on Monday undergo a mandatory U.N. Human Rights Council review of its human rights record, two weeks after lawmakers passed legislation to toughen what are already arguably the world’s harshest blasphemy laws.
Religious freedom advocates say Christians, Ahmadis and other minorities in Pakistan are disproportionally affected by provisions that carry the death penalty for insulting Mohammed and life imprisonment for defiling the Qur’an.
Under the existing penal code, disparaging Mohammed’s dozen wives or his relatives or “companions” is also an offense, with a conviction carrying a prison term of three years, a fine, or both.
Under the bill passed unanimously by the National Assembly earlier this month, however, the prescribed punishment for anyone convicted of insulting the wives, companions or relatives of Mohammed will rise to ten years’ imprisonment, in addition to a fine of roughly $4,000.
Furthermore, the bill would add “blasphemy” to the category of offenses for which an accused may not be granted bail. Once passed by the Senate, the law will require the ceremonial president’s signature to become law.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, modified in the 1980s, are already widely abused to settle business rivalry or personal disputes. Mere allegations of blasphemy have frequently triggered mob rioting and vigilante killings. Among the most blasphemy-related killings were the gunning down in 2011 of a Muslim provincial governor and a Christian federal minorities minister.
Although no death sentence for blasphemy has been carried out by the state, dozens of people are on death row or serving life sentences after being convicted under the laws. Figures cited in the State Department’s latest religious freedom report say 84 people were charged with blasphemy in 2021 alone, and at least 16 received death sentences.
A report by the Center for Social Justice, a Pakistani non-governmental organization, found that among almost 2,000 people accused under the blasphemy laws up until 2021, 47 percent were Muslims, 33 percent Ahmadis, and 14 percent Christians. (Christians, Ahmadis, and other non-Muslims together make up just 3.5 percent of the population in Pakistan, the world’s second most-populous Muslim nation.)
The moves to tighten the notorious laws come after years of appeals by Western governments and NGOs inside and outside Pakistan for them to be scrapped altogether.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent NGO, said the changes would likely “exacerbate the persecution of Pakistan’s beleaguered religious minorities and minority sects.”
“Given Pakistan’s troubled record of the misuse of such laws, these amendments are likely to be weaponized disproportionately against religious minorities and sects, resulting in false FIRs, harassment and persecution,” it said in a statement. (An FIR, first information report, is a complaint lodged with police by the alleged victim of an offense.)
“Moreover, increasing the penalty for alleged blasphemy will aggravate misuse of the law to settle personal vendettas, as is often the case with blasphemy allegations. At a time when civil society has been calling for amendments to these laws to prevent their abuse, strengthening this punishment will do the exact opposite.”
In Geneva on Monday, Pakistan is due to undergo a “universal periodic review” (UPR), a mechanism under which every country’s rights record is assessed by the Human Rights Council (HRC) every four years.
Pakistan currently occupies one of 47 seats on the HRC, and has been a member for almost all of the council’s 17-year existence, serving terms in 2006-2008, 2009-2011, 2013-2015, 2018-2020, and 2021-2023.
At the HRC, Pakistan has played a leading role in campaigns by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to target religious “defamation,” – a drive seen by critics as an attempt to combat purported anti-Islam “blasphemy” globally.
The UPR mechanism is often hailed by advocates of multilateralism as a bright spot in the workings of the often controversial HRC. However, the process typically sees abusive regimes line up to speak out in support of each other, and fend off criticism from democracies.
“While the session is meant to scrutinize governments and thereby strengthen the basic rights and freedoms of their citizens, most of the UNHRC members who take the floor are expected instead to praise Pakistan for its alleged achievements,” the Geneva-based NGO U.N. Watch predicted ahead of the UPR.
U.N. Watch said it had documented 10 “false claims” in the Pakistani government’s formal submission to the HRC as part of its review.
One of them deals with the blasphemy laws situation. Islamabad says in its submission to the council that it is “committed to curb the misuse of blasphemy laws,” and has put in place “safeguards,” including imprisonment for those convicted of filing false blasphemy charges.
U.N. Watch alleged that the reality was different.
“The Pakistani NGO Center for Social Justice reported that in 2021 at least 84 people were accused of blasphemy in Pakistan and three people were extrajudicially killed,” it said. “In October 2022, two people were killed within days of each other for blasphemy. Earlier in the year, a Pakistani court sentenced a woman to death for sharing images on WhatsApp that were considered insulting to the Prophet Muhammad.”
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