Blasphemy law is often exploited to settle personal enmity and to target minorities in Islamic nation, rights groups say
Christians protest following a Muslim mob attack on churches and Christian homes in Jaranwala, in Pakistan’s Punjab province in August. Christians who occupy one of the lowest rungs in Pakistani society, are frequently targeted with spurious and unfounded blasphemy allegations. (Photo: Rizwan TABASSUM/AFP)
A rights group has hailed a Pakistani court’s granting of bail to a Christian couple accused of blasphemy for allegedly defiling the Quran and called for changes to the Muslim-majority nation’s blasphemy laws.
In a press statement on Oct. 19, Nasir Saeed, director of the UK-based Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) called the judgment a break from the usual “norm” of Pakistan’s judicial system.
“This landmark judgment breaks from the norm, where trial courts often refuse bail, burdening accused individuals with lengthy legal battles that can extend all the way to the Supreme Court,” Saeed said.
He also praised the “courageous decision” of Additional Sessions Court judge, Mian Shahid Javed, for deciding the case “based on merit.”
Judge Javed granted bail to Kiran Bibi and Shaukat on Oct. 18 citing a lack of evidence of “willful damage or defilement of the original text of the Holy Quran” under Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC).
Violations of Section 295-B can result in severe penalties, including life imprisonment, for those found guilty of deliberately defiling, damaging, desecrating, or using a copy of the Holy Quran or its extracts in a derogatory manner or for unlawful purposes.
"The court observed several gaps in the detailed report"
The couple was accused of "defiling… [the] a copy of the Holy Quran," as per the case filed by Muhammad Tamoor who claimed to have witnessed pages flying off the couple’s house on Sept. 8.
Tamoor was reportedly granted access to the house by Kiran Bibi who claimed that the pages may have been accidentally thrown by her daughters Sundas and Ruby, and her son Sabir, all of them minors.
On further inspection, Tamoor found a pink bag containing additional pages from the Quran behind a water tank on the rooftop prompting him to call the police and lodge a blasphemy complaint.
However, the court observed several gaps in the detailed report and evidence presented before it.
The court pointed out the report failed to establish the allegation of “the element of willful damage or defilement of the original text of the Holy Quran.”
It also observed that there was “no credible eyewitness testimony affirming that the accused parties had deliberately committed such a grave offense,” CLAAS said.
“This decision underscores the importance of conducting a thorough investigation"
Doubts were also voiced over “whether the accused or someone else was responsible for the alleged act,” CLAAS added.
The couple was granted bail of 100,000 Pakistani rupees (US$357), and police were directed to conduct a “more extensive inquiry,” into the allegations.
Saeed welcomed the court's demand for further inquiry.
“This decision underscores the importance of conducting a thorough investigation to establish the facts surrounding the case and ensure that justice prevails,” Saeed said.
He also pointed out that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws needed “appropriate changes … to prevent innocent individuals from suffering for crimes they did not commit.”
Blasphemy is a highly sensitive issue in Pakistan and the nation’s laws punish it with death or life sentences. Dozens of Muslims and non-Muslims have been accused and sentenced for blasphemy though none has been executed.
Rights groups say blasphemy is often exploited by Muslims to settle personal enmity and to target minorities such as Christians.
However, allegations of blasphemy have triggered mob violence and deaths over the past decades.
Catholic woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. The Supreme Court acquitted her in 2018. She left the country and settled in Canada.
Saeed also called for regular hearings in blasphemy cases to “ensure that innocent individuals do not endure prolonged imprisonment.”
In August, 22 churches and 91 Christian homes were ransacked and torched by a Muslim mob in Jaranwala, in Pakistan’s Punjab province after two local Christians were accused of blasphemy by desecrating the Quran.
Christians make up about 1.6 percent of Pakistan's 241 million people.
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