07/30/2008, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Muslim lawyer against manipulation in blasphemy cases

by Qaiser Felix
The "presumption of innocence and burden of proof on the prosecution" must be maintained. Since the introduction of the law in 1986, almost 900 people have been accused; the norm is often used to "strike minorities".

Islamabad (AsiaNews) - "In the climate of intolerance that prevails, and in view of threats and intimidation and the pressures brought on the judiciary, it has become nearly impossible to obtain a fair hearing in Pakistan for those charged under the blasphemy laws". The statement comes from a Pakistani lawyer, Taimur Malik, in an article that appeared yesterday in the newspaper the Daily Times. "In these circumstances", continues the Muslim lawyer, "the lower judiciary has often been constrained to accuse and convict persons without proper study of the evidence placed before it".

Blasphemy is a sensitive topic for the country: according to data provided by the episcopal commission for justice and peace, since its introduction in 1986 until today, the law has led to the killing of 25 people. The more serious fact is that these deaths were not the consequence of the execution of death sentences: the presumably guilty people were killed by religious extremists, even in the custody of police agents. According to some sources, 892 people have been accused according to law 295-C of the Pakistani penal code.

Taimur Malik expresses the hope that these trials may take place in a "serene" atmosphere, free of "extreme pressure"; he also asks that there be a "profound transformation in civil society", because blasphemy is too often used as a "political weapon" to silence dissent or put ethnic or religious minorities on trial. "The fact that blasphemy cases are passed on to the high court", the lawyer continues, "is a clear sign that normal judicial procedures are not being observed. This contributes to increasing the widespread sense of a lack of respect for basic human rights in the country".

Although the situation remains difficult, he cites a recent sentence from the high court of Lahore, which he describes as a "milestone" bringing reason for hope: the trial against Maulvi Tahir Asim concluded with "full acquittal" and the suspension of the death penalty. The accusations had been motivated by racial factors, aimed at striking an ethnic minority. The court highlighted the abuse of "blasphemy" charges, to the point that the law is often "exploited as a pretense to perpetrate crimes and violence", or to "persecute" religious minorities.

Taimur Malik emphasizes that a cardinal principle of the law provides for "the presumption of innocence" for the accused, and the burden of proof on the public prosecution; a principle that, in Pakistan, is overturned in the case of blasphemy, since it is the accused who must provide proof of his innocence. The situation is worsened by the lack of independence in the judiciary, which is subjected to strong external pressure - including political pressure - that undermines serene and fair judgment. "The problem", concludes the lawyer, "is that there is no question of judicial independence in blasphemy cases, considering the enormous pressure from the religious extremists". In 1997, a judge of the supreme court in Lahore was assassinated by fundamentalists for acquitting two Christian brothers of their blasphemy accusations, following a trial that had concluded two years earlier, under the scrutiny of the mass media and the population.

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