11/02/2004, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Changes to Blasphemy Law fall short of expectations

by Qaiser Felix

For Christians, the law must be rejected. Human rights activists are dissatisfied with Hudood ordinances.

Islamabad (AsiaNews) – For Catholic and Protestant leaders, recent changes to the Blasphemy Law approved by Pakistan's National Assembly are inadequate and useless. According to the people AsiaNews talked to the law should be simply scrapped.

Amendments adopted on October 26 place limits on the abuses of the law. The law however still condemns all insults to the Qu'ran and the prophet Mohammed. Offending the Holy Book is punished with life imprisonment whilst insulting Mohammed is a capital crime.

Since its adoption in 1996, tens of Christians have been killed accused of defaming Islam. Some 560 people have been charged under this law and 30 are still waiting for the courts' decisions. Oftentimes, the law is used against adversaries and enemies.

Now, under the amended law, only senior police officers will be able to investigate blasphemy cases. More importantly, they will have to file criminal charges only after looking into allegations and not before as was the case till now.

Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha, chairperson of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, and Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the commission, said "the changes were disappointing. Similar changes had been tabled in 1992 and discarded as insufficient."

Joseph Francis of the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement condemned the proposed changes. "Senior Police officers," he said, "will never do the inquiry personally but will forward it to subordinates or staff officers and these will send the inquiry to further lower ranking officials and the complications will continue."

Mr Francis added that in the past existing inquiry procedures were not observed. Therefore, "how can we accept a new procedure when the existing one was not followed?" he said. "The only solution is to repeal these laws."

Manzoor W. Batti, a Protestant and founding president of Teach Awareness through Skill and Knowledge, also condemned the law. "If a Muslim accuses anyone of blasphemy no one will dare challenge his words. The charge itself is a death sentence. In this country we have many such examples."

The National Assembly also amended the law on honour killing and the Hudood ordinances. Inspired by the Qu'ran they punish behaviour deemed incompatible with Islam such as adultery, gambling and drinking alcohol. Whipping and stoning are the usual means to mete our justice.

The changes include harsher verdicts for honour killings. The minimum jail sentence goes from seven to ten years whilst the maximum can be life or the death penalty.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan the amendments are inadequate. "Women will continue to be murdered and their killers walk away scot-free," Commission chairperson Tahir Mohammad Khan and Secretary General Hina Jilani said. For them, "the changes in the law do nothing to remove its shortcomings." Both agreed that the ordinances should just be repealed.

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