12/17/2010, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Asia Bibi affair: abolishing the blasphemy law would be better but amending it is more realistic

AsiaNews speaks to Sherry Rehman, a member of parliament who is proposing changes to the controversial blasphemy law. Asia Bibi is still in prison, waiting for the High Court in Lahore to set a date to hear the appeal against her death penalty.

Lahore (AsiaNews) – Asia Bibi is still in prison, and next week the High Court in Lahore will set the date for the first hearing in her appeal against the death penalty imposed by a lower court. Until then, the government or President Asif Ali Zardari cannot take any action. The debate over the blasphemy law and whether to abolish or amend it continues across the country. The law was adopted in 1986 by then military strongman Zia ul Haq to consolidate his personal hold onto power. AsiaNews spoke to Sherry Rehman, a member of parliament who has proposed some changes to the law.

Why amend the law rather than abolish it?

My experience is that few people are in favour of abolishing a law, in both the National Assembly and the Senate. Personally, I would rather see the law abolished, but amendments on extramarital relations have provided women with substantial relief. The blasphemy law is even more controversial because people are accused of poor respect for religion, which is not true. We need to talk more about these laws since they abuse in the name of Islam and his prophet, who did not tolerate injustice. Muhammad would have rejected the idea that his name could be associated with intolerance and injustice. History is full of examples that bear witness to this position. Quoting one hadith against dozens more does not create the basis of a law.

Can you explain what actual improvements your amendments would bring?

My proposal would remove the death penalty and reduce sentences for blasphemy. This is not perfect but statistics show that lighter sentences are a strong deterrent against a misuse of the law for personal reasons. The law has been badly used especially after General Zia ul Haq introduced the death penalty. The second change would involve intent and premeditation, which have always been central to a penal law. This would mean that the accused would not be accused based on false evidence or paid witnesses. The accuser would have to show that the accused blasphemed with the intent of doing it. The third change is that such cases would be tried by higher courts, to avoid unfair rulings since these courts are under closer scrutiny by the public. Finally, anyone guilty of false accusations or inciting interfaith hatred would be punished.

Is the bill your personal proposal or does it have the government’s tacit approval?

All personal bills can go to committee where the government is in the majority. Since Benazir Bhutto always gave help to those who were vulnerable, especially Pakistan’s minorities, I think the proposal would get more than a tacit approval. The Minority Affairs minister wants these laws amended and is directly committed to the issue.

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