Words That Merit the Death Penalty

LAHORE, Pakistan – Should speech—even religiously-offensive speech—earn someone the death penalty? During our time in Pakistan, we heard a lot about the country’s controversial blasphemy laws, which make it a capital crime to blaspheme against Islam. Several countries around the world have laws against blasphemy, but according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Pakistan’s laws are “particularly pernicious.”

The Commission’s 2015 report lists several concerns about the laws: “There is no clear definition of blasphemy, which empowers the accuser to decide if a blasphemous act has occurred. No proof of intent is required, nor must evidence be presented after allegations are made.”

Charges of blasphemy are frequently lodged, and all too often, the allegations arise from personal disputes. In 2014, the Punjab Prosecution Department reviewed 262 blasphemy cases awaiting trial and recommended that 50 be dismissed as invalid. Among those accused of blasphemy were the owner of a major television station and an imam. There are currently nearly 40 prisoners convicted of blasphemy in Pakistan. Last year alone, five people were sentenced to death and one to life in prison. To date, no one has actually been executed under the laws.

In Lahore, I met one of the attorneys for Asia Bibi (also known as Aasiya Noreen), a Christian woman on death row for blasphemy. I’m not revealing the lawyer’s name for his safety.

Aasia BibiBibi is in her late 40s and the first woman in Pakistan to be sentenced to death on blasphemy charges. Bibi, her husband and their children are Roman Catholics, and the only Christians in their rural village. The family is poor, and Bibi worked as a farm laborer. She told her lawyer her fellow laborers kept trying to convert her to Islam. When she refused, the situation became increasingly tense. According to her lawyer, “some hot words were exchanged.”

In June 2009, Bibi’s co-workers complained about her to a local cleric, alleging that she had made derogatory statements about Muhammad and said that the Quran is not a divine book, but man made. A mob came to Bibi’s home and beat her and members of her family before the police finally came and arrested her. In November 2010, she was sentenced to death. Her attorneys have filed various appeals, but all have been denied. They hope one more appeal may be heard in the next few months.

Asia Bibi during trial court hearing In the meantime, Bibi has been kept in solitary confinement. Officials say it is to protect her from the other prisoners. I asked her attorney how she is doing. He told me Bibi “is uneducated and doesn’t understand what is happening to her.” He said her health has been very badly affected by her imprisonment. “She is leaning on her faith to keep her strong,” he told me. The lawyer said his larger worry is for Bibi’s family, especially her teenage daughter who is developmentally disabled. Threats have forced the family into hiding.

Even if Bibi were to be acquitted, the danger wouldn’t be over. Many former blasphemy prisoners are murdered by vigilantes after they are released from prison. Lawyers and those who support blasphemy prisoners are also at risk. In May 2014, an attorney was killed in his office for defending a Muslim accused of blasphemy.

Our group got a sense of how deeply entrenched the blasphemy laws are when we heard from prominent attorney Ali Zafar, an advocate at the Supreme Court. He was concerned about how the blasphemy laws are abused, but nonetheless insisted the laws themselves “are valid.”

Zafar told us while Pakistan protects freedom of expression, that freedom is “hedged with responsibility.” And he said the freedom can be curtailed “if it affects the security of the country.” Blasphemy, he said, is something that incites violence.

Many of the Americans in our group were taken aback when Zafar stated that “it is difficult for non-Muslims to understand the depth of feelings” Muslims have for their Prophet and their faith. “So anything that goes against that feeling…is bound to incite passion. Passion leads to chaos and chaos leads to death and injury,” he said. Therefore, he argued, it is best to avoid violence by banning the inciting speech.

Zafar acknowledged that the vast majority of blasphemy charges are based on false allegations. He said there is a growing movement in Pakistan to adopt safeguards to prevent misuse of the laws, including punishing those who lodge false claims.

But as for the blasphemy laws themselves? He asserted, “This law is here to stay. There is no question of it.”

Early in our trip, our SJS group met at the U.S. State Department with Dan Nadel, acting director of the Office of International Religious Freedom at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. He told us while the U.S. government consistently urges Pakistan to repeal the blasphemy laws, “we have to be realistic that it is not something likely in the near future.” He said the best solution for now is working to “change minds in Pakistani society.”

Having now traveled there, I see what a big challenge that may be.