HRS International

Another voice silenced

Pakistan’s minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, a man with a family, was murdered Wednesday last week. He was shot outside his home, in a relatively secure residential area of Islamabad, a relatively secure city in Pakistan. He is the second high government official to be murdered for fighting the human-rights violations contained in Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

Rooshanie Ejaz, Pakistan

The assailants committed the murder in broad daylight, not far from a police station. The minister had mentioned the threats to his life in many recent TV and newspaper interviews. Despite these threats, he was given no special security. It is also worth mentioning that he was also Pakistan’s only Catholic minister. The pamphlets strewn around the crime scene by his murderers read as follows:

In your fight against Allah, you have become so bold that you act in favour of and support those who insult the Prophet. And you put a cursed Christian infidel, Shahbaz Bhatti, in charge of the [blasphemy laws review] committee. This is the fate of that cursed man. And now, with the grace of Allah, the warriors of Islam will pick you out one by one and send you to hell, God willing.

The blasphemy law is a man-made law; the death penalty for blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammed and Islam, was imposed during general Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship in the ‘80s. Thus far, only non-Muslims have been sentenced to death under this law, while blaspheming Muslims have been sentenced to life imprisonment or ordered to pay heavy fines.

The law itself is quite vague on the subject of implementation. As the proof of blasphemy cannot be presented in court, since repeating it would entail further blasphemy, trials on such charges do not involve the presentation of evidence or counterevidence. Take, for example, the case of Asia Bibi, a young Christian Pakistani and mother of four. Her trial basically consisted of someone accusing her of having committed blasphemy and a judge sentencing her to death for it.

Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, was shot at a posh cafe, seconds away from Pakistan’s Parliament and Supreme Court. He was shot by his own bodyguard, who has not as yet been punished for the murder because the lawyers and judges who would have to pass judgement on him fear for their lives. This past Valentine’s Day, young male students crowded outside the jail in which Mumtaz Qadri is been held and waved banners that read: “Celebrating Valentine’s with Mumtaz Qadri, the protector of the Prophet’s honour”. Salman Taseer was an educated family man, responsible for setting up major communications meia in Pakistan, including a newspaper with a nationwide circulation, the Daily Times.

Like Salman Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti was murdered not for blaspheming but for calling for an end to the human-rights violations that the implementation of this law entails. Not a single one of his television or print interviews suggests that he supported blasphemy against Islam; he merely supported the basic right of every Pakistani citizen to be free from the oppressive implementation of this law. He was murdered because he wanted his government to protect minorities rather than set them up to be punished for crimes that they might not even have committed. He was not afraid, a fact made obvious in this excerpt from his interview with Al-Jazeera:

Reporter: Who is your life threatened by, and what sort of threats are you receiving?

Shahbaz Bhatti: The forces of violence; militant organizations, the Taliban and pro-Al-Qaeda [fractions]. They want to impose their radical philosophy in Pakistan, and whoever stands against their radical philosophy, they threaten them. When I’m leading this campaign against the Shariah laws, for the abolishment of [the] blasphemy law, and speaking for the oppressed, marginalized and persecuted Christian and other minorities, the Taliban threaten me … I am ready to die for the cause; I’m living for my community and the people suffering, and I will die to defend their rights. So these threats and these warnings will not change my opinions and principles. I will prefer to die for my principles and justice for my community rather than compromise because of these threats.

Before 1985, when the law was changed, the punishment for blasphemy, which was defined as “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religious belief”, was a maximum of ten months in prison. Only ten people had been sentenced under the law between 1927 and 1985. Since the addition of Article 295 to the law, some 4.000 cases have been registered. One of the recent cases was brought against a doctor in Karachi for throwing away a pharmaceutical company representative’s business card, because the man’s name was Mohammed Faizan. The doctor was arrested for this ‘act of blasphemy’.

In a country where the justice system is severely inefficient, such offences don’t just blatantly violate human rights; they seriously hamper the judicial process. It seems that due to the fear of inciting anger from clerics, Pakistan’s government officials are unwilling to stand up for the rights of its minorities. The vision of Pakistan that was propounded by Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the “father of the nation,” has clearly been lost in the dust of corruption and the acquisition of political power by people who have played up shamelessly to the prejudices of the masses. For what is the point of a democracy unless it prioritizes human rights and freedom above undemocratic popular sentiments?