Pakistan Ups the Ante on Blasphemy - Life in Prison Now Possible!

Pakistan continues its crackdown on what it sees as blasphemy against Islam by passing a new law that would increase the punishment for those found guilty of insulting or using derogatory remarks not just against the Prophet Muhammad but also members of his family, wives, companions, and the First Four Caliphs of Islam.

The bill, titled The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2023, was passed in the Pakistani Senate by Senator Hafiz Abdul Karim of the Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, with sponsorship from Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan of the Jamaat-e-Islami. The National Assembly of Pakistan, serving as the country’s lower house, passed the bill in the presence of just 15 lawmakers.

The proposal seeks to increase the punishment for anyone guilty of disrespecting the wives, family members, and companions of the Prophet Muhammad from the current three years in prison, as stated in Section 298-A of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), to “imprisonment for life which shall not be less than ten years,” along with a fine of up to one million Pakistani rupees (equivalent to 3,500 US dollars).

The bill also recommends changes to the Second Schedule of the country’s Code of Criminal Procedure, which includes issuing a “warrant” to anyone accused of committing the crime in the first instance of the offense explained in Section 298-A, declaring the offense non-bailable, increasing the punishment for the crime, and having the suspects appear in a “court of sessions” for trial.

During an argument regarding the bill, Senator Ahmad claimed that blasphemy is still being committed on social media and that the current law is ineffective in countering it. He also added that the bill doesn’t change the death penalty sentence for anyone found guilty of insulting, using derogatory comments, or blaspheming the Prophet himself.

While the bill passed after a vote, some members of the Pakistani Parliament and other officials and experts expressed concern over the proposal and how it was passed. Sherry Rehman of the left-wing Pakistani People’s Party (PPP) pointed out that the bill should have been referred to a relevant committee before being put to a vote, adding that there was some inclination for lawmakers to railroad specific legislation.

Human Rights Minister Riaz Hussain Pirzada also urged Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to undo the amendments, saying that it was created to “please a specific group” and passed without “fulfilling the norms of parliamentary proceedings.

Minority groups have raised their eyebrows on ignoring a good practice in parliamentary business followed for amending a law to eliminate technical defects rather intending to persecute a specific group,” Pirzada said in a letter to Prime Minister Sharif.

Jahangir Mohammed of the Islamic think tank Ayaan Institute said that anti-hate laws in Pakistan are necessary.

All societies need laws which promote social harmony and which outlaw incitement to people’s sacred beliefs,” Mohammed said. “Pakistan has had lots of issues relating to sectarian and religious hatred from extreme elements – both Sunni and Shia – so some kind of religious incitement laws are necessary to maintain peace and harmony and to clamp down on the worst excesses. And I’d rather have modern anti-hate laws than the antiquated British era blasphemy laws.

But obviously, given that this is Pakistan and laws are often used for political vendettas and score-settling, laws have to be proportionate and properly applied and not used for political purposes,” he added.

Some say the new amendment was passed to take aim at the minority Shia Muslim community, which openly disavows one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives and close companions.

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