Richard Hamer: Offence no excuse for rights abuse

Law and religion can be difficult mix for Pakistan society. Picture: Getty

Law and religion can be difficult mix for Pakistan society. Picture: Getty

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The case of Muhammad Asghar is a timely and sobering reminder of the freedoms we enjoy in Scotland.

It’s also a reminder of the importance of Amnesty International’s work lobbying governments and regimes around the world on behalf of the oppressed, imprisoned and persecuted who do not have a voice to speak for 
themselves.

The 69-year-old former Edinburgh resident has been convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death in Pakistan. He claimed he was the Prophet Mohammed but his diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia – documented by his doctors in Scotland – was ignored by the courts trying him.

Regardless of whether Mr Asghar is mentally ill or not, he should never have been charged under blasphemy laws.

This is not an issue centred on religion, but clearly focused on justice and the urgent need for reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. As it currently stands, these are far too easily abused and misused by those with malicious intentions.

The blasphemy laws, while purporting to protect Islam, have been arbitrarily enforced by the police and judiciary, persecuting religious minorities and the majority Muslims alike. More disturbingly, in the recent past, individuals accused of blasphemy have been killed by members of the public, often in incidents where the victim has not been formally charged by the authorities.

In fact, the case of Muhammad Asghar should be viewed as one of freedom of expression.

Pakistan has long been a cause for concern when it comes to the right to speak out and is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Since US journalist Daniel Pearl was murdered in 2002 only one person has been convicted of killing a media worker despite at least 48 being killed since 2008.

News, media and internet sites including Facebook and YouTube have also been subject to restrictions on the pretext of being anti-state or hosting content contrary to religious sentiments under a range of laws. These restrictions go beyond the limitations on the exercise of freedom of expression permissible under international human rights law. They also set a dangerous precedent for future suppression of the right to freedom of expression and send a signal to perpetrators that they may seek to justify human rights abuses as defence of the state or religious sentiments.

At Amnesty, we’re campaigning for the Pakistan authorities to repeal or amend the blasphemy laws.

In particular, we want to see Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which carries the death penalty, withdrawn. These actions are in line with the government’s pledge to review and improve “laws detrimental to religious harmony”, announced by prime minister Gillani in August 2009.

We also want to see all individuals detained for expressing political views considered “anti-state” released unless charged with internationally recognised offences in fair trials and without recourse to the death penalty.

The Pakistan authorities must take concrete steps to show that no-one can commit human rights abuses and attempt to excuse them as a defence of their religion. Let’s hope that the international outrage at Muhammad Asghar’s case has a positive outcome and proves a catalyst for real reform in Pakistan.

• Richard Hamer is the programme director for Amnesty International Scotland