A much welcome SC verdict

A three-member Supreme Court bench has issued its detailed judgement in the Salmaan Taseer murder case. Spread over 39 pages, the court’s opinion is not very different from what saner sections of society have been saying for a long time.

Addressing the issue, whether it constitutes blasphemy to demand change in the existing man-made blasphemy law, as Taseer had been advocating, the judgement says “any call for reforming the blaspheme law (section 295-C Pakistan Penal Code) ought not to be mistaken as a call for doing away with that law, and it ought to be understood as a call for introducing adequate safeguards against malicious application or use of that law by motivated persons.”

Of course, no one said – or could say in their right mind – the law should be done away with, only that its misuse should be stopped. In fact, as the court noted, if Islam comes down heavily upon commission of blasphemy then Islam is also very tough against those who level false allegations about a crime.

The real issue that needs to be tackled is to ensure no innocent person is booked for blasphemy on the basis of a fake allegation (notably, so far the higher courts have not upheld a single sentence for blasphemy). It is not unusual for unscrupulous individuals to level baseless blasphemy accusations out of personal enmity or to make a property grab.

The accusation virtually amounts to a death sentence. Pointing the finger at somebody on this account is enough to get them killed by a furious mob. Those arrested by the police to face the law seldom fare any better.

Lawyers afraid for their own lives are too afraid to defend them, judges too harassed to deliver justice. In one case, a Lahore High Court judge was shot dead in his chambers for giving relief to a blasphemy accused.

After pronouncing death penalty for Salmaan Taseer’s assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, the judge of the anti-terrorism court hearing the case had to leave hastily not only the courthouse but the country as well to save his life. An air of fear and intimidation prevails.

As the court noted, in the absence of adequate safeguards against misapplication or misuse of such law by motivated persons the persons falsely accused of that offence suffer beyond proportion or repair.

Unfortunately, the religious parties are insistent on retaining the blasphemy laws in their existing form even though it is a man-made law introduced by General Ziaul Haq’s regime. Each time reform is attempted they threaten to launch street agitation.

After Taseer’s assassination, PPP’s Sherry Rehman introduced an amendment bill in the National Assembly aimed at preventing abuse of the laws, only to discover that her life too was under threat from the religious right for advocating reform.

The apex court constitutes a great morale booster. Citing amendments to the Hadood laws, the bench aptly observed in its detailed judgement that in all matters, including religious, there is an ongoing effort to keep the laws of the land updated through amendments to meet the emerging challenges, and also to provide safeguards against mischievous implications, misapplications or misuse of the existing laws. The government should draw courage from this to do the needful.

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