Friday, January 10, 2020
While observers from around the world are horrified to see how lives like that of Asia Bibi’s can be torn apart by our current blasphemy laws, many inside the country see things rather differently. They consider the already stringent laws too lenient.
Recently the Punjab Assembly unanimously passed a resolution asking the government to improve existing laws or make new ones to punish blasphemers more sternly. The resolution also calls for a central screening system, like that used in Saudi Arabia, to intercept blasphemous content on social media. It seems they would prefer a surveillance state to the chance that someone could type something that might cause offence.
The resolution suggests that the current blasphemy laws aren’t being enforced properly. Some people, they claim, are committing blasphemy under the guise of freedom of expression. According to the resolution, blasphemous content is available online, while blasphemous books are being brought into the country.
They seem unconcerned with the major problem with the laws as they stand. That the laws are being used as a tool for persecution and oppression, especially against the religious minorities. That they can be used as an excuse to intimidate and threaten religious minorities and justify violent attacks and arson on their homes and places of prayer.
There has been a continuous increase in the registering of blasphemy cases since the law was amended in 1986 by the military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq. But that doesn’t mean that blasphemy is on the rise. The testimonies of many innocent men and women suggest another reason. More and more people are learning that this is an easy, cheap and quick way to settle personal scores against their enemies, especially if their adversaries aren’t Muslim and are less likely to be listened to in court.
Because of inaction from government, extrajudicial or vigilante killings have increased. Government fails to bring the perpetrators to justice. This encourages the hate-mongering mullahs and citizens to take the law into their own hands and justify killing in the name of religion. it undermines the courts and the justice system as well as tearing the lives of innocent families apart.
When in 2011 Mumtaz Qadri killed the then governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer in broad daylight for supporting Asia Bibi, he was treated like a hero by many. After Qadri was convicted and executed an elaborate shrine and mosque were erected in his honour on the outskirts of Islamabad.
Later that year, Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in parliament, was killed for calling for reforms to the blasphemy law. Several people including Sherry Rehman were threatened with death and silenced.
These are surely the sort of things that would scandalise anyone, be they Christian or Muslim.
Though voices have largely been silent from inside the country, we have seen the international community repeatedly call for repeal or for appropriate changes to be made to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to stop their terrible abuse. Yet we are supposed to believe that the only problem with the laws is their leniency. And it’s not just the Punjab Assembly calling for such changes.
In 2018, Hammad Azhar, the then Minister of State for Revenue, made a similar request, presenting the Prevention of Electronic Crimes(Amendment) Bill 2018 to make the blasphemy law harsher by adding new offences.
Blasphemy laws are inconsistent with universal human rights, several western countries have already removed them from their statute books.
The Senate human rights committee has suggested that someone making a false accusation of blasphemy should face a similar punishment to someone found guilty of blasphemy. It may not be the best solution, but it would at least encourage someone planning to make a false accusation to think again. The committee also recommended that anyone accusing somebody of blasphemy should come up with two witnesses to corroborate his claim. Government ignored both the suggestions.
When vicious vigilante attacks take place following false allegations, there are assurances that the killers would be brought to justice. However, there doesn’t seem to be any will to do that.
In 2009, after a bloody attack in Gojra where eight Christians were burnt alive and hundreds were injured, a one-man tribunal was set up to investigate the incident and to prepare recommendations. The report was handed over to the then chief minister Shehbaz Sharif in October 2009, seeking an immediate implementation of the recommendations, but todate, nothing has been done in that regard. Instead, there are continued efforts to make this law more stringent through parliament.
Since then several innocent men and women have been killed by vigilantes. The twenty-five-year-old Mashal Khan who was studying at the Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan was lynched by his fellow students. The Christian couple Shama and Shahzad were burnt alive in a brick kiln furnace. That such mob brutality is possible suggests something is wrong with the current laws and their implementation, not that they are too lenient.
Meanwhile, dozens languish in jails, often with a death sentence hanging over them, all based on the flimsiest of allegations and little or nothing in the way of solid evidence.
Wajih-ul-Hassan was released by the Supreme Court after almost eighteen years in jail. The prosecution failed to provide any substantial evidence against him. Eighteen years for a piece of hearsay, yet nobody is willing to express their regret, or reform the justice system.
Asia Bibi was released last year after nine years, while there are several victims of this law awaiting their trial. Though Pakistani politicians have completely failed to bring the issue of the misuse of the blasphemy laws to parliament, international human rights organisations seem more concerned and regularly raise their voices against the abusive implementation of this law.Western politicians often speak against the misuse of the law; even the European parliament, House of Commons and House of Lords have discussed the impact of the blasphemy law and have repeatedly called on the Pakistani government to reform this law. But it is all falling on deaf ears and, instead, the present government has twice discussed making this law more stringent instead of listening to the international community and stopping the killing of innocent people in the name of religion.
Blasphemy laws are inconsistent with universal human rights, several western countries have already removed them from their statute books. Pakistan needs to follow suit in spite of vested interests that argue in favour of more laws, not fewer. Pakistan is in the top five countries where the blasphemy law is regularly misused. Government must understand that there is no place for such a law in the 21st century.
OPPOSITION SLAMS INCUMBENT GOVERNMENT OVER ITS CLAIMS OF ACHIEVING ECONOMIC STABILITY IN PAKISTAN
A Pakistan Peoples Party parliamentarian on Thursday slammed the incumbent Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led government’s claims of achieving economic stability by alleging that its policies had driven the country’s middle class to the verge of extinction.
In an at-times contentious session of the National Assembly, the bonhomie between government and opposition on legislation to secure the Army chief’s extension appeared a thing of the past. PPP’s Abdul Qadir Patel said the PTI’s ministers kept claiming Pakistan’s economy was on the right track, but appeared oblivious to the ground realities, adding unemployment was on the rise and inflation was putting food and medicines out of the reach of the common man.
Patel was reacting to a speech by Communications Minister Murad Saeed, in which the PTI stalwart had claimed that the economic stability achieved in 2019 would this year be transferred to the masses. Saeed said the government’s Sehat Insaaf Card scheme would provide 5.7 million people access to the best healthcare facilities. The distribution of these cards has already started, he said, adding 53,480 cards would be provided to residents of the federal capital by March, while families in tribal districts would receive them by the end of the year.
The minister also highlighted the government’s Rs. 6 billion relief package for the Utility Stores to ensure affordable essential commodities for the common man. He also discussed the launch of homeless shelters for the impoverished.
Earlier, the Parliamentary Secretary for Planning and Development Kanwal Shauzab told lawmakers that 13 projects worth around $11 billion had already been completed under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. To a question, she said another 13 CPEC-related projects valued at $18 billion were currently underway, while projects worth $21 billion were in the pipeline.
Shauzab said 46 percent of the work on the Gwadar East Bay expressway had been completed, adding that the New Gwadar International Airport—said to be the largest in the country—was currently being built with the help of a Chinese grant.
Meanwhile, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan told the lower house that 124,587 people had availed the Assets Declaration Scheme launched by incumbent government last year, leading to recoveries of over Rs. 62 billion. He also said that the federal government has allocated Rs. 152 billion during the current fiscal for the development of tribal districts.
Parliamentary Secretary for Commerce Aliya Hamza Malik said that the country’s exports have enhanced by 4.79 percent during the first five months of the current fiscal year. She said our trade deficit had reduced by 35 percent, which is a big success.
Responding to a calling attention notice, Power Minister Omar Ayub said Rs. 300 million had been approved to upgrade a grid station in Chitral and electrification of adjoining areas there. He said the PTI government was dedicated to the development of Chitral.
Ayub said Pakistan is a peace loving country and Prime Minister Imran Khan has promoted the positive and soft image of Pakistan by opening the Kartarpur corridor. He said the Sikh community across the world is recognizing and acknowledging this very positive step of Pakistan.
While it's unlikely that Iran will directly attack the US over the killing of Qassem Soleimani, it could attempt to indirectly harm US interests in Afghanistan. If this happens, Pakistan could be drawn into the conflict.
The assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, by the US on January 3 has created a sense of unease in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, which is already vulnerable to Islamist militancy.
Both the Afghan and Pakistani governments have urged restraint by Washington and Tehran, fearing that an all-out US-Iran war could unleash uncontrollable violence on their soil.
Iran has vowed retaliation for the US' airstrike against Soleimani in Iraq, but experts say the hardline Shiite regime in Tehran is not in a position to directly confront Washington. Instead, it could attempt to harm US interests in the Middle East, as well as Afghanistan, they say.
Saudi Arabia — a longtime US ally in the Middle East — and Iran are already engaged in a proxy war in places across the region.
The Iranian regime has also expanded its influence in Afghanistan over the past decade, and more recently by directly engaging with the Taliban.
Taliban commanders have traditionally been allied to Riyadh due to the Sunni-Wahhabi ideology they share with Saudi monarchs.
But the influence of both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan on the Islamist group has been substantially reduced in the past few years. Tehran has made inroads in the region, and security analysts say it could complicate matters for US President Donald Trump's administration, which has been trying to finalize a peace deal with the Taliban for a respectable departure from the war-torn country.
The Taliban as Iran's proxies?
The Afghan government said Friday it was concerned about an escalation of violence in the region after Soleimani's death.
"We call on the Islamic Republic of Iran, our big neighbor, with whom we have a common language, religious, historic and cultural [values], and on the US, who is Afghanistan's strategic and fundamental partner, to prevent conflict escalation, and we hope that both sides solve their differences through negotiations," said a statement from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's office.
The statement depicts Kabul's dilemma, as it does not want to offend the US, nor does it need another violent conflict on Afghanistan's long border with Iran. And yet, Soleimani's killing is likely to sabotage the peace process with the Taliban.
Attiqullah Amarkhail, a retired Afghan general, and security analyst, praised President Ghani's "neutral" stance on the US-Iran conflict, but at the same time acknowledged potential risks.
"Soleimani had supporters in a number of extremist groups in Afghanistan, and they could act against the US. Iran is not capable of directly attacking US targets in the country; the only force that can do that is the Taliban," Amarkhail told DW, referring to Soleimani's alleged role in recruiting Afghans to fight for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
The situation will have a negative impact on the ongoing peace process as well as the overall security situation in Afghanistan, the expert added.
Abdul Baqi Amin, the head of the QASED Strategic Research Center in Afghanistan, said the Afghan government must remain neutral in the conflict, although he admitted that Iran can influence Afghan politicians.
Rahmatullah Nabil, the former head of Afghanistan's NSD intelligence agency, said Kabul should try to stay away from the conflict.
"Soleimani was an asset for Iran as well as a threat to the region. He was a master of proxy wars, credited with the creation of a number of regional militant groups. His death will increase tension in the region. If the Afghan government fails to maintain a neutral position, the current circumstances will destabilize Afghanistan even further," Nabil said.
But Afghan neutrality does not guarantee that US forces in Afghanistan will ignore a possible Iranian threat.
"Iran must be assured that its interests will not be threatened from Afghanistan, but Afghan authorities have no control over US forces in the country. Also, Kabul can't rein in pro-Iran fighters, who have fought in the Middle East, especially in Syria," analyst Amin underlined.
Upper hand for Pakistan's military
The complicated situation in Afghanistan is likely to draw in Pakistan, another important player in the region, and one of the few countries in the world that recognized the Taliban government in Kabul in 1996.
Security analysts say the Islamic country still has considerable influence on the insurgent group, made evident by the fact that it has been playing a pivotal role in brokering a deal between the US and the Taliban.
The US is aware of Islamabad's significance in the aftermath of Soleimani's assassination. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promptly made a telephone call to Pakistan's army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, after the assassination on Friday.
"Pakistan's Chief of Staff General Bajwa and I spoke today about US defensive action to kill Qassem Soleimani. The Iran regime's actions in the region are destabilizing and our resolve in protecting American interests, personnel, facilities, and partners will not waver," Pompeo said on Twitter.
Unlike Afghanistan, Pakistan has a powerful and well-trained military, which has assisted the US in its past interventions in Afghanistan. The Trump administration might hope that Pakistan's generals could use their influence to stop the Taliban from falling into Iran's orbit.
Ties between Iran and Pakistan have been tense for many years due to a deep mutual mistrust. Islamabad and Tehran accuse each other of backing separatist groups, which are active in Pakistan's and Iran's Baluchistan provinces.
Shiite-majority Iran is wary of Islamabad's alleged support for various Sunni militant groups, which have been involved in launching attacks in Iran's eastern areas, and massacring Shiite citizens inside Pakistan.
Will Pakistan support the US on Iran?
Supporting the US on Iran "would be a tough decision for the Pakistani government," Hasil Bezenjo, an opposition politician in Islamabad, told DW.
"Pakistan has a large Shiite population and if Islamabad sides with Washington, it would unleash a sectarian war in the country."
At the same time, Pakistan cannot afford to go against the US and Saudi Arabia, as its economy is heavily dependent on the two countries.
"An independent approach would be best for Pakistan, but I fear the government won't be able to remain neutral in this conflict. Pakistan desperately needs funds from the IMF and the World Bank," Najamuddin, an Islamabad-based analyst, told DW.
Shiite groups in Pakistan are already skeptical of the government's neutrality claims. "Pakistan is not neutral. If a war breaks out between Iran and the US, Washington would even demand military bases in the country. Pakistani officials have not directly condemned Soleimani's killing, which shows that the country has already sided with Saudi Arabia and the US," Rashid Rizvi, the head of a Shiite organization, told DW.
Experts contend that the Pakistani army would benefit from a US-Iran confrontation, as it would give generals more leverage domestically and internationally. Soon after Soleimani's killing, Washington revived a military training program for Pakistan, and the Trump administration could soon restore suspended military aid for the South Asian country.