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Pakistan further tightens blasphemy laws that already spell death penalty for insulting prophet

Pakistan has further tightened its strict blasphemy laws by extending the punishment to those who are convicted for insulting religious figures connected to prophet Muhammad.

The Pakistan National Assembly unanimously passed the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill which will not only widen the ambit of the law, but increase punishment and fines for those convicted under it.

The move has raised concerns among human rights activists and observers who say it will increase the prospect of persecution for some, especially religious minorities like Hindus and Christians.

In Pakistan, an insult to the prophet Muhammad or Islam carries a potential death sentence. The laws have also been used to persecute and target minority faiths and sections in the Muslim-majority country.

Under the law, those convicted of insulting the prophet’s wives, companions or close relatives will face 10 years in prison or life imprisonment, along with a fine of Rs 1m Pakistani rupees ($4,500 or £3,489). It also makes blasphemy charges a non-bailable offence.

Abdul Akbar Chitrali, the lawmaker who drafted the bill, said: “The punishment for insulting a member of parliament is five years, while the punishment for insulting the sacred personalities is three years.”

“This is an insult in itself,” Mr Chitrali told the house during the passing of the law last week.

“May this bill be a cause of our salvation and may Allah grant our rulers the ability to implement the bill in letter and spirit.”

Zahid Akram Durrani, the deputy speaker, hailed the legislation as “historic” and congratulated the lawmakers.

Rights activists fear the legislation could be “weaponised disproportionately” against minorities.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), an independent non-profit, said it is “likely to 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 weaponised disproportionately against religious minorities and sects, resulting in false FIRs [first step towards a police complaint], harassment and persecution,” the statement added.

The issue remains sensitive in Pakistan, where thousands of Islamist protesters brought the country to a standstill after Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row after being accused of blasphemy, was acquitted.

It is also feared that it will increase mob lynchings of those accused of blasphemy. A Sri Lankan factory manager facing blasphemy claims was beaten to death and set ablaze by a mob in Sialkot city in December 2021.

Two months later, a man was killed by another mob for allegedly burning pages of the Quran in Khanewal in Punjab province. The man was tied to a tree and thrashed by an angry mob wielding batons and axes, according to reports.

According to the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), at least 89 citizens – 18 women and 71 men – have been the subjects of extra-judicial killings over blasphemy accusations since the country was formed in 1947.

Source: The Independent, Staff, January 23, 2023

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