The Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) Roundtable Brussels-EU, a civil society initiative who gathers regularly to exchange ideas with the EU institutions to discuss the religious freedoms, sent a letter to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan on 23 July expressing their grave concern about the South Asian country’s blasphemy laws which impose strict punishments on those who desecrate the Quran or who defame or insult the Muslim Prophet Mohammad.

Around 98% of Pakistan’s 218 million people are members of the official state religion, Islam, making it the second-most populous Muslim country in the world. Although the government has never executed a person under the laws, public accusations, alone, have inspired numerous acts of reprisal violence against those who have been mentioned as potential blasphemers.

In the FoRB Roundtable’s letter to Khan, which was signed by multiple organisations and individuals, the organisation demanded that increased efforts be made to improve inter-religious cooperation in Pakistan and to provide citizens who are not Muslims with guarantees that their rights will be protected by the courts and that they will no longer subject to reprisals by certain sectors of society or from members of the country’s law enforcement agencies.

“It is our view that blasphemy laws – including both their clauses and references – should be repealed and replaced by laws that call for respecting all religions and place proportionate legal penalties on hate speech or any intent to cause physical harm or commit acts of violence against an individual based on a disagreement with another’s belief,” the FoRB Roundtable’s letter reads.

Offences relating to religion were first codified during the height of the British Raj in 1860 and were later expanded in 1927. Pakistan inherited these laws after India became independent from the British Empire in 1947 and added to the existing laws after the partition of India in the same year.

Between 1980 and 1986, a number of clauses were added to the laws by the military government of General Zia-ul Haq as he wanted to Islamise the country and legally isolate Pakistan’s tiny non-Muslim population.

During Zia’s years of heavy-handed rule, the blasphemy laws were created and expanded in several instalments. In 1980, making derogatory remarks against Islamic personages was made an offence, carrying a maximum punishment of three years in jail.

In 1982, another clause prescribed life imprisonment for desecrating the Koran. In 1986, a separate clause was inserted to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammad with “death or imprisonment for life”.

Prime Minister Khan vowed to defend the country’s strict blasphemy laws in the run-up to his general election win last year, but he advised Pakistan’s Ministry of Law and Justice to suggest penalties for misuse of this law.

This move, however, has not satisfied those who want more guarantees for Pakistan’s religious minorities. The signatories of the FoRB Roundtable’s letter want the government of Pakistan to revoke the death penalty and revise the country’s existing capital punishment laws for offences, whether proven or otherwise, that are perceived as “insults to Islam”.

Copies of the letter were also sent to the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the European Unions’ Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief.

*For a full version of the FoRB Roundtable’s letter, please click on the following link: https://www.forbroundtable.org/post/re-pakistan-s-blasphemy-laws