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Blasphemy Is a Life-or-Death Issue in Pakistan


Protesters condemn the killing of Abdul Wali Khan University student Mashal Khan, after he was accused of blasphemy, during a protest in Peshawar, Pakistan, April 20, 2017. The banner reads, "We are all Mashal's Brothers."

Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, where strong religious feelings have led in the past to violence.

Blasphemy laws are meant to guard against anything seen as a direct insult to God, Islam or religious leaders. For people accused of violating such laws, the judgment is often a life-or-death matter. Under Pakistan’s legal system, a judge can propose either life in jail or death to anyone found guilty of blasphemy.

The issue is back in the news after a Punjab court last week condemned to death Nadeem James, who is Christian. The police said they had gathered evidence from someone who said James sent him a blasphemous poem through the software program WhatsApp.

A Pakistani government lawyer confirmed a claim by James's defense lawyer that James never sent any blasphemous material to anyone.

"The accused said ... he never sent any blasphemous message through his cellphone," prosecution lawyer Rana Naveed Anjum told VOA. "But once something has been alleged against you, and there is enough evidence on record corroborating that assertion, then it is hard to deny or overlook such material."

A fair trial is difficult

Pakistani students of Islamic seminaries take part in a rally in support of blasphemy laws, in Islamabad, Pakistan, March 8, 2017. Hundreds of students rallied in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, urging government to remove blasphemous content from socia
Pakistani students of Islamic seminaries take part in a rally in support of blasphemy laws, in Islamabad, Pakistan, March 8, 2017. Hundreds of students rallied in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, urging government to remove blasphemous content from socia

A Pakistani human rights activist, Mehdi Hassan, said it is difficult to get a fair trial in cases involving religious beliefs.

"In Pakistan, religious might is very influential," Hassan told VOA, "and that thinking has an impact on police and other departments in such cases."

Nadeem James's lawyer, Anjum Wakeel, has said the defendant was "framed" by his so-called friend, "who was annoyed by [James's] affair with a Muslim girl."

Prosecutor Anjum agreed that James told investigators he had been set up.

James and members of his family had been receiving threats, some of them from local religious leaders. Because of the sensitive nature of the case, the trial was held in secret, and in a prison.

'Blasphemy' can mask personal disputes

Blasphemy is one of the most divisive laws in Pakistan. Rights groups say accusations of blasphemy are often abused, and used to settle personal disputes.

Activist Mehdi Hassan said the country's political parties should press Pakistanis to end the misuse of these laws.

"To address this problem as a long-term solution, political parties should play a role, because democracy gives a level playing field to everyone," Hassan told VOA.

Hassan remembered Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the well-respected lawyer and political leader who helped create modern-day Pakistan. He said, "We have to remember what Mr. Jinnah said, ‘Religious beliefs are the personal matter of an individual.’”

Jinnah served as Pakistan’s first governor-general after the end of British colonial rule in 1947.

A history of violence

Past blasphemy cases have fueled public anger that resulted in mob violence and killings.

Mashal Khal was a journalism student at Abdul Wali Khan University in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. In April of this year, he was beaten and shot dead by other students. They became angry over reports that he had placed blasphemous comments online.

FILE - Members of a Pakistani civil society take part a demonstration against the killing of Mohammad Mashal Khan, a student at the Abdul Wali Khan University in the northwestern city of Mardan, in Karachi, Pakistan, April 22, 2017. A mob in the northwest
FILE - Members of a Pakistani civil society take part a demonstration against the killing of Mohammad Mashal Khan, a student at the Abdul Wali Khan University in the northwestern city of Mardan, in Karachi, Pakistan, April 22, 2017. A mob in the northwest

In 2014, an angry mob in Punjab beat a Christian woman and her husband to death over blasphemy accusations. In 2011, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was killed by his bodyguard after the governor proposed reforms for the blasphemy laws.

Even with criticism, Pakistan's government has been calling for strict enforcement of blasphemy laws. In April, the government used newspaper advertising and text messages to warn millions of Pakistanis not to post, share or upload "blasphemous" material online. The government also asked anyone finding such material to report it to the police.

The group Human Rights Watch reports that 10 Muslims and five non-Muslims were arrested in Pakistan last year on blasphemy charges. In addition, at least 19 people found guilty of blasphemy were sentenced to death and are being held in prison.

I’m Phil Dierking.

Madeeha Anwar reported this story for VOANews.com. Phil Dierking adapted the report for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

Do you think there should be a separation between religion and state laws? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

allege - v. o state without definite proof that someone has done something wrong or illegal​

assert - v. to state (something) in a strong and definite way​

blasphemy - n. something said or done that is disrespectful to God or to something holy​

corroborate - v. to support or help prove a statement, theory, etc. by providing information or evidence​

controversial - adj. relating to or causing much discussion, disagreement, or argument​

frame - v. to make an innocent person appear to be guilty of a crime​

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