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Pakistan: An inferno for minorities?

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The year 2012 was a relatively grim one for Pakistan when it comes to minority rights and the notorious blasphemy laws of the country. One of many incidents worth noting took place right after Pakistan celebrated its 65th independence day in the sacred month of Ramadan with a vow to protect minorities from injustice.

Then Rimsha Maseeh, 11-year old girl suffering from Down’s syndrome, was accused by her neighbors of deliberately burning sacred religious texts and risked the death penalty under the blasphemy laws. The news was first reported by the “Christians in Pakistan” website that actively publishes news of Christian persecution in the country.

As the news broke on mainstream and social media, people started taking the matter to higher authorities. Communal tensions grew and a community of some 900 Christians living in the outskirts of Islamabad was ordered to leave the neighborhood they had lived in for the last two decades. They fled in mass and after some two weeks, even though many of them had started to trickle back, the feeling of insecurity still remained. One Christian, Arif Masih, found his house looted on his return.

During all the time that the girl’s age, identity and state of mental stability were being debated by local and international media, the police kept her incarcerated in Adiala Prison, claiming it was for her own security.

The situation worsened when the lawyer of accuser, Rao Abdur Rehman, alleged that “The doctors are favoring the victim and the state is also supporting her.”

He further warned that if the case were to be used to change the law itself, they would take the law in their own hands. Referring to the scandalous case of Governor Salman Taseer, (assassinated by one of his own bodyguards Mumtaz Qadri for his support of Asia Bibi, another Christian he believed was wrongly accused of blasphemy), he said ominously, “There are many Mumtaz Qadris in this country and we will support them.”

Rimsha’s family was hoping to get the girl back after a court hearing and medical report which found she was a minor with learning difficulties, and thus  was eligible for bail. Yet their hopes were dashed when Rao spawned hatred, challenged the report and the hearing was postponed.

The turning point in Rimsha’s case came when an eye witness, Hafiz Muhammad Zubair, accused the prayer leader Khalid Judoon of adding burnt Islamic texts to the pile of ashes seized from Rimsha, with the intent of framing her. The prayer leader has now been arrested on charges of fabricating evidence.

After these developments, some religious sections of the country, including Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi, chairman of the Pakistan Ulema Council came out in support of the girl. This helped mitigate the charge of blasphemy as many clerics began to see that the girl was innocent and had been injustly framed by a prayer leader. The defense was able to mount a strong case in court which led to her acquittal and removal to a safe place, a move that was welcomed even by those critics who were cynical about the need for religious intervention in support of the girl.

There is a long and infamous history of the blasphemy laws being instrumentalized for settling personal vendettas and inciting religious hatred. For instance, some 12 Christian families had to flee their homes in a village of Punjab when a page of Holy Quran was found splattered with ink in a school. The loud speakers of mosques broadcast calls to punish the accused, and life for the minority community became impossible.

Or take the case of Yusuf Masih, accused of blasphemy by his gambling partner in November 2005, which resulted in the torching of three Christian churches, two hostels, a missionary-run school and several buses.

For the latest, Supreme Court of Pakistan admitted the petition against the Pakistan’s Ambassador to US over alleged blasphemy. The petitioner claims that Ms. Sherry Rehman had committed blasphemy while speaking on a news channel some two years ago against the blasphemy law.

The blasphemy law is a draconian law that can readily be invoked against anyone, threatening them with life imprisonment or death. It must be repealed and though the liberal quarter has been pushing for its repeal for a long time now, the recent support shown by religious authorities might prove to be a good sign. The hopes of minorities are dwindling in the face of continued indifference from majority communities. But in late 2012, Pakistan has indeed witnessed one case where justice did triumph, so we can only hope that this bodes well for 2013.

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Nighat Dad Twitter: @nighatdadNighat

Nighat Dad is a lawyer by training with extensive experience in criminal, civil and corporate law matters. She has been serving as legal advisor to various corporate entities and civil society organizations in the country. She is the Director at Digital Rights Foundation and working on Internet Governance issues and an active voice against Government policies that hamper citizen's use of ICTs. She also keenly focuses women rights related legislations, she has been at the forefront on civil society's struggle against increasing Internet ban and content filtering in Pakistan.