The Sindh government is run on old-fashioned, archaic lines with feudal politicians calling the shots, bureaucracy reduced to a rubber stamp and the governance indicators display abysmal performance. But, giving the devil his due, we have often witnessed the passage of progressive legislation by the Sindh Assembly, the implementation remaining a separate point because of weak executive machinery.

Recently, the Sindh Assembly has made it mandatory through an amendment to the Sindh Mental Health Act, 2013 that a person who is accused of blasphemy be examined by a psychiatrist and given treatment if found suffering from a mental disorder. This is a welcome step as mensrea (guilty intention) is an essential element of crime but was hitherto disregarded in cases of blasphemy. An insane person or a child, who has not yet attained maturity, cannot be held guilty of crime because they lack the capacity of judgment after understanding the consequences of their actions. A couple of years ago, an 11 year old Christian girl with Down syndrome, was accused of burning pages of a Noorani qaida and taken into police custody, when protesters gathered to beat her up.

Islam is a religion of love and peace and there is no room for extremism. Islam gives the message to its followers that there is no coercion in matters of religion. To use force for bringing people into the fold of Islam constitutes flagrant violations of Islamic injunctions.

In a number of Muslim countries, blasphemy is dealt under state law. Article 156 (a) of Indonesia’s Criminal Code forbids “anyone from deliberately, in public, expressing feelings of hostility, hatred or contempt against religions with the purpose of preventing others from adhering to any religion” and forbids “anyone from disgracing a religion.” The maximum penalty for violating Article 156 (a) is five years’ imprisonment.

Our blasphemy laws date back to the original 1860 Indian Penal Code in which Articles 295 and 298 were inserted, keeping in view the religious sensitivities of the inhabitants of the subcontinent. Blasphemy was not an offence punishable with death. Besides, the sections shared universal application and did not refer exclusively to one faith. These provisions also required malicious intention integral to the offence concerned. In 1927, the law was amended to incorporate clause 295-A which reads: “Whoever with deliberate intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens… by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations, insults the religion or the religious beliefs of that class… shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine or both.” Later, after independence, the term of punishment was increased up to ten years. Zia-ul-Haq added new provisions in the form of 195-B, 295-C, 298-A and blasphemy under Section 295-C became an offence punishable by death.

The wording of the blasphemy law in Article 295-C is vague and ambiguous. According to Section 295-C, any person who, “by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the name of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is liable to be punished with the death sentence or imprisonment.” Here the element of “ill-will” or malicious intention has been disregarded.

In October 1990, the Federal Shariat Court ruled that the “penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet (PBUH)… is death and nothing else.” The ruling also noted that “no one after the Holy Prophet (PBUH)… exercised or was authorised the right to reprieve and pardon.” The FSC also directed the court to remove the punishment of “life imprisonment” for the offence of blasphemy under 295-C. The bill in this respect was passed by the Senate but could not be approved by the National Assembly. In 1993, a bill was introduced in parliament to extend the scope of 295-C by including the words “the names of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) companions and family members,” but no legislative enactment could be effected in this regard.

It is not uncommon for the accusers to be motivated by religious bigotry, personal prejudices, selfish gain or professional rivalry. Prosecution often relies on unsubstantiated oral testimony of the complainants. The offence has been made cognisable and non-bailable. Ill-treatment and torture in police custody are commonplace. The judicial proceedings are protracted and the judges presiding over the proceedings of the case are given death threats and intimidated by local clerics. In October 1997, Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti was murdered because he had acquitted two men accused of blasphemy.

In 1994,MaulanaKausarNiazi, the then Chairman of Council of Islamic Ideology, remarked, “The law (blasphemy) needs modification to ensure that it is not abused by unscrupulous elements for their selfish ends….The procedure for police registration of a case, the judicial level at which it should be considered and the suitable criteria for admission of witnesses have all to be looked at thoroughly”. But so far no serious effort to reform pernicious blasphemy laws has been embarked upon.

In the present state, blasphemy laws in Pakistan could be and are easily misused. The provision of capital punishment for blasphemy without the strictest possible safeguards is inimical to the fundamental rights of minorities. A democratic evolution of the country requires a level playing field for all groups inhabiting the land, irrespective of differences of caste, colour, creed and religion. In this backdrop the legislation by Sindh Assembly should be hailed and other provinces must follow suit.