Blasphemy Cases Draw Focus in Pakistan

By Alex Rodriguez for The Los Angeles Times

NANKANA SAHIB, Pakistan | Muslim cleric Muhammad Salim isn’t worried that a court or Pakistan’s president might spare a Christian mother from this village who has been sentenced to death on blasphemy charges.

After all, if Asia Bibi escapes the hangman’s noose, he’s confident someone else will kill her.

“Any Muslim, if given the chance, would kill such a person,” Salim said calmly, seated cross-legged on a straw mat at a mosque here. “You would be rewarded in heaven for it.”

Salim isn’t the only one calling for vigilante justice. A cleric in Peshawar has offered 500,000 rupees, or $6,000, to anyone who kills Asia Bibi, if her execution doesn’t take place.

The mother of five is accused of disparaging the prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an during a dispute with three other women. She denies the charge. “My God knows that I never used those words,” she told investigators.

Her case has exposed deep rifts in Pakistan over the blasphemy law, seen by some as an appropriate measure to defend the tenets of Islam, but viewed by others as a dangerous tool easily abused in a society that is a volatile patchwork of ethnicities, religions and sects.

There have been other controversial blasphemy cases. Accused of burning pages from the Koran, Imran Latif was charged with blasphemy in Lahore but then released on bail Nov. 3. Eight days later, two men shot him to death.

This month in the southern city of Hyderabad, a Shiite doctor was arrested on blasphemy charges after police received a complaint that he had maligned the prophet Muhammad. His crime? He tossed out the business card of a pharmaceutical company representative whose first name, Muhammad, was printed on it. The doctor belongs to the smaller Shiite sect known as Ismailis.

“There’s a fundamental lunacy to it,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “There is no good spin to put on the blasphemy law. It’s used frequently in these preposterous ways, for preposterous reasons.”

The law dates to the 1980s and the rule of Gen. Zia ul-Haq. Since Zia’s rule, 974 people have been charged under the law, according to the Pakistani news media. No one has been put to death for a blasphemy conviction.

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