Senate panel to debate how to prevent misuse of blasphemy laws

ISLAMABAD: A Senate committee is set to debate how to prevent blasphemy laws being applied unfairly.

Senator Farhatullah Babar told Reuters that the Senate Committee on Human Rights, of which he is a member, will start discussions on blasphemy laws as early as next week, based on recommendations from a 24-year-old report.

He said it would be the first time in decades that any parliamentary body had considered a formal proposal to stop the abuse of the blasphemy laws.

According to Babar, the committee would consider a proposal making it binding to investigate complaints before registering a case, to ensure ‘genuine blasphemy’ had been committed and the law was not being used to settle scores, as critics say it is.

He also said the committee would debate whether life imprisonment was an adequate punishment, instead of the mandatory death penalty.

If the committee makes any recommendations, it would be only the first step in a long process to bring about change in how the laws are enforced.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s office declined to comment on the Senate committee’s moves. His party’s support would be needed for any measures to move forward, and while legislation protecting women’s rights has been passed and Nawaz has reached out to minorities, it is unclear if he would risk a backlash over blasphemy.

Unearthed report

Hundreds of Pakistanis are on death row for blasphemy convictions, and at least 65 people, including lawyers, defendants and judges, have been murdered over blasphemy allegations since 1990, according to figures from the Center for Research and Security Studies based in Islamabad.

Pakistan’s religious and political elites almost universally steer clear of speaking against blasphemy laws, but a small group of lawmakers has been looking for ways to reduce abuses.

Babar said the Human Rights Committee hit a “gold mine” when he discovered a 24-year-old Senate report that called for a more specific definition of blasphemy and said further debate was needed on whether expunging “imprisonment of life” from an earlier law had been correct.

“So we convinced other senators that here we have a chance, we have a starting point, we have this report in hand. Let’s debate it and see how we can prevent abuse of this law,” Babar said.

However, religious conservatives who have millions of followers strongly support the laws. Tahir Ashrafi, head of the Pakistan Ulema Council of Muslim clerics, said it would oppose any change.

“Make new laws to punish those who abuse blasphemy laws,” Ashrafi told Reuters. “But no one can even think about changing this law.”

(Source: Express Tribune)

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