In yet another attack in the series of religiously-motivated attacks by Muslims on Christians in Pakistan, a mob attacked Awais Qamar, his wife, Rukhsana, and other members of their family, beating them, blackening their faces with soot, and forcing them to walk around the village (a way of shaming the offender) after an allegation of blasphemy.
According to a team from the European Centre for Law and Justice’s (ECLJ) affiliate in Pakistan that visited the area and gathered the facts, a Muslim neighbor visiting Rukhsana saw a used banner advertising college emblems at the family’s house. The neighbor told Rukhsana that the banner had a verse from the Quran written on it. A few minutes after the neighbor had left, a local mosque made an announcement that the family had desecrated the Quran.
A mob gathered and attacked the family. The local police timely intervened and rescued the family from the mob. According to a World Watch Monitor report, the District Police Officer, Sohail Zafar Chattha, ordered the police to save the couple at any cost, even if they had to shoot the perpetrators. The police had also arrested the Muslim cleric who had incited the violence. In addition, no blasphemy charges were filed against the Christian family. Reportedly, the state inspector general had given police orders to investigate blasphemy allegations before determining whether to file a report.
The American Center for Law and Justice and the ECLJ commend the police response in this case. Yet, this is exactly what the law requires of police officers in Pakistan. In 2002, the Lahore High Court gave specific directions how the authorities are supposed to respond after receiving an allegation of blasphemy. Noting “inefficiency and incompetence of the Investigating Officer” in that case, the court stated:
[W]e direct the Inspector-General of Police . . . to ensure that whenever such a case is registered, it be entrusted for purposes of investigation to a team of at least two gazetted Investigating Officers preferably those conversant with the Islamic Jurisprudence and in case they themselves are not conversant with Islamic Law, a scholar of known reputation and integrity may be added to the team and this team should then investigate whether an offence is committed or not and if it comes to the conclusion that the offence is committed, the police may only then proceed further in the matter.
Two years after the Lahore High Court gave this direction, the legislature enacted section 156-A of the Criminal Procedure Code (Cr.P.C.), requiring that “no police officer below the rank of a Superintendent of Police shall investigate” a blasphemy case registered under section 295-C (passing derogatory remarks against Prophet Muhammad).
Another important procedural safeguard that already exists to protect people accused of blasphemy is section 196 of the Cr.P.C. Under this law, as interpreted by the High Court, a blasphemy case may not be registered unless upon a complaint made by the order of or under the authority of either the Provincial or the Central Government. Ideally, the blasphemy laws should be abolished, but strictly following these procedural safeguards would at least reduce their abuse.
Refusing to file blasphemy charges against Qamar and his family shows that the authorities got it right, at least in this case. It also validates a crucial fact that human rights organizations and even some Pakistani courts have emphasized for years, that many blasphemy cases are baseless. In Qamar’s case, no blasphemy ever occurred and nobody intended to desecrate the Quran. Qamar or his family perhaps did not even know that the banner had a verse from the Quran written on it until the neighbor informed them. How could they have intended to desecrate it? In the past, if all Pakistani authorities had followed the court’s mandated procedure, as the authorities did in this case, many innocent lives could have been saved from mob attacks, and many long prison terms could have been avoided.
For instance, in November 2014, a mob of approximately 1,500 Muslims attacked a Christian man and his pregnant wife, beat them, dragged behind tractors on sharp rocks, broke several of their limbs, and then burned them alive in a brick kiln. A timely and proper response by the local police could have saved the couple’s lives.
In March 2013, about 3,000 Muslims descended on Joseph Colony, a Christian colony in Lahore, Pakistan, to seek revenge for alleged blasphemy. The mob burned about 160 houses, 18 shops, and 2 churches. Despite having knowledge of the attack beforehand, the police in the area stood by and watched as the colony burned. Instead, the alleged blasphemer was arrested and sentenced to death.
In June 2009, Asia Bibi was arrested and charged under the blasphemy law that punishes making disparaging remarks against Prophet Muhammad. Similarly, a Pakistani court has sentenced Asia Bibi to death, and the High Court recently upheld her conviction.
In these cases, the prosecution failed to follow the Lahore High Court’s direction. Further, procedural safeguards under sections 156-A or 196 of the Cr.P.C. had been violated. Moreover, the defense attorneys failed to file crucial motions to dismiss the cases for these procedural errors. Instead, they merely raised the errors in their closing arguments but did not move the court to dismiss the cases on these grounds. Because the attorneys failed to file the motions to dismiss, the court never directly adjudicated the procedural argument and the attorneys missed a valuable opportunity, whether that be having the case thrown out on procedural defaults if the motion was granted or an additional ground from which to appeal if the motion was denied. Especially, in Asia Bibi’s case, her attorney did not even cross-examine the two main eye-witnesses against her. On appeal, the High Court noted that her attorney had “not defended [her] with the required seriousness as the most relevant aspect of the prosecution case remained unrebutted.”
In all fairness to the defense counsels in blasphemy cases, the trial courts may still convict defendants due to societal pressure (or sometimes bias), but pressure on the courts does not exonerate attorneys from doing their due diligence. Additionally, the record created through effective legal representation at the trial court would raise the chances of acquittal at the appellate courts.
We encourage the Pakistani government to provide trainings to Pakistani police officers regarding the proper procedure for investigating allegations of blasphemy. Such procedures, as demonstrated by officers Chattha’s and his colleagues’ actions, uphold rule of law, minimize prosecution for false accusations, reduce societal unrest and mob violence, and, importantly, protect innocent Pakistani citizens, including minority Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis, as well as majority Muslims who suffer severe persecution due to false blasphemy allegations. Further, we encourage attorneys who defend against blasphemy charges to robustly consider all procedural and substantive arguments at the right stage of each case, exhausting all remedies available. If each actor (investigators, prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys) involved in such cases diligently performs his or her duty, many lives can be saved under the existing laws until the Pakistani society is ready to abolish the blasphemy laws.
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