Why Is It So Easy To Arrest a Person For Blasphemy In Pakistan?


Originally published in Foreign Policy

On May 13, 2014, police in the province of Punjab announced that they had registered a complaint of blasphemy against sixty-eight lawyers who had been involved in a protest against a police officer. The protest started after a senior officer allegedly detained and beat one of the lawyer’s colleagues. During the protests, the lawyers had called out the name of the officer, “Umar,” in their slogans.  As Umar also happens to be the name of a prominent companion of and second successor to the Prophet Muhammad, a member of a Sunni sectarian organization, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), filed a complaint under the blasphemy laws that claimed the lawyers, who were reportedly mostly from the Shi’ite minority sect, were shouting and insulting the name of the religious figure, not the police officer, and that his religious sentiments were offended. Though it is unclear, the police may have convinced the sectarian group to drop the complaint.

According to a 2012 report by the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of blasphemy cases in Pakistan since the laws were revised pursuant to several amendments to Pakistan’s Penal Code in the 1980s. Though there are no recent statistics, 2014 may also be a record year for new blasphemy complaints, since, as the above example illustrates, blasphemy cases can often be brought on frivolous or unsubstantiated grounds. In 2010, the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) stated that approximately 80 percent of those accused of blasphemy are “falsely implicated.”  The natural question is: Why?

Media coverage of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws often focuses on the blasphemy provisions themselves, describing them as being inherently discriminatory, overly broad, and vague almost “catch-all” provisions where any statement, action, or gesture, explicit or otherwise, could attract a complaint. Though this may be true and becomes particularly problematic in the prosecution of blasphemy cases, it still doesn’t fully explain how false and frivolous arrests, which aren’t motivated by any perceived or actual insult to religion, can be so easily made by the police. Therefore, it is also important not to lose sight of the inadequacy of the procedural rules and protections (and sometimes the disregard for them) under which an arrest can be made in Pakistan for these crimes, the ideological motivations driving these cases, and the wider problems facing Pakistan’s criminal justice system that combine to make the blasphemy laws far more prone to manipulation and abuse than other provisions.

Under Schedule II of Pakistan’s Code of Criminal Procedure, most offenses related to religion in Pakistan’s Penal Code, including certain blasphemy provisions, are defined as “cognizable offenses,” which means a police officer has the authority to make a warrantless arrest for alleged violations. Also, unlike noncognizable offenses, a police officer can initiate an investigation into cognizable offenses without the authorization of a court.

Under the Code of Criminal Procedure, however, even warrantless arrests for cognizable offenses are subject to certain minimum legal evidentiary standards. The police have the power to arrest anyone “concerned in any cognizable offence,” or anyone who is the subject of a “reasonable complaint” or “credible information” or about whom they have a “reasonable suspicion” of committing an offense. When police in Pakistan receive information or a complaint about the commission of a cognizable offence, they must prepare a written document, known as aFirst Information Report (FIR), which initiates the process of investigating the case. Even if an FIR is registered, the police cannot investigate a case if it determines that the suspected cognizable offense is not of a serious nature or there is “no sufficient ground” to conduct an investigation. Moreover, pursuant to a 2004 reform, no police officer below the rank of superintendent can investigate cases involving derogatory remarks in respect to the Holy Prophet. In practice, however, even these standards and procedures, minimal and inadequate as they may be, are not typically followed by Pakistani police authorities.

When most blasphemy complaints are filed, instead of conducting a thorough investigation and assessing the complaint on the basis of any concrete evidence, police tend to arrest the accused immediately. In most cases, the arrests are made in response to pressure by local mobs or extremist organizations. Consequently, the blasphemy laws have repeatedly been used to bring false or frivolous complaints that have predominantly targeted vulnerable and persecuted religious minorities and sects. In April 2014, a member of the Ahmadi Muslim community, a minority sect of Islam, was arrested after a mob overran his house upon hearing allegations that he had desecrated the Qur’an.

Cases are also often brought due to property disputes or personal vendettas between parties. In late March 2014, a Christian man wasconvicted of allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The accused maintained his innocence and stated that the case was motivated by a property dispute. In early September 2013, police arrested a mother of four who was accused of calling herself a prophet by a local cleric, even though the police suspected that the dispute was over “the distribution of food provided by charity in their area.” In some instances, mental illnessis involved. There is also not much deterrence against making a false claim. Although a blasphemy complaint is cognizable and the accused can be liable to immediate and warrantless arrest, registering a false case requires a warrant before police can pursue an individual. Moreover, the punishment for bringing a false case cannot exceed six months of imprisonment, whereas a blasphemy complaint can result in life imprisonment or a sentence of death. And legal action for a false complaint is rarely brought due to fear of being violently targeted.

Perhaps the underlying reason why such standards and procedures are not fully implemented is that Pakistan faces deeper systemic problems with its criminal justice system that make the blasphemy laws far more susceptible to abuse. Many commentators state that Pakistan’s criminal justice system is completely dysfunctional, particularly at the local level.Local police lack adequate resources and are severely understaffed. Police lack proper investigative skills and training. As a result, corruption and abuse run rampant, opening the door for extremist organizations and vigilante groups to strong-arm local police into making unsubstantiated arrests. In some instances police have allegedly been complicit in filing false complaints.

The blasphemy laws have garnered a sanctity or inviolability of their own such that even a mere accusation is treated as guilt. According toAmnesty International, most complaints are prompted “not by the blasphemous actions of the accused, but by hostility toward members of minority communities, compounded by personal enmity, professional jealousy or economic rivalry.” Sectarian and extremist groups, driven by an ideology of hate and intolerance, take advantage of the sensitivity of the issue. They manipulate these laws to harass and antagonize anyone, including minority communities, who they feel are a threat to their particular virulent and distorted interpretation of Islam. Police officers, on the other hand, are pressured to arrest suspects largely due to harassment and intimidation of these extremist groups, who, as one report notes, “demand the arrest of suspected blasphemers regardless of whether the accusations have been substantiated.” In some instances local police are compelled to make an immediate arrest for the accused’s own protection.

Efforts to reform or repeal the blasphemy laws have met with fierce, and to date successful, resistance from religious clerics. In 2011, certainprocedural amendments were proposed by then Pakistan Peoples Party’slawmaker Sherry Rehman to prevent abuse of the law, but the proposal was dropped after strong opposition from religious clerics. One of the proposed changes was to categorize certain blasphemy crimes as noncognizable offenses — requiring a warrant for an arrest to be made. Another amendment was proposed to remove the jurisdiction of the lower courts, who are also open to mob pressure, from hearing blasphemy cases. The proposed law would have also provided stiffer penalties for bringing frivolous or false complaints of blasphemy. On September 18, 2013, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), a constitutional advisory body on Shari’a issues, proposed the application of the death penalty for those making false accusations of blasphemy, in order to prevent abuse of the law. However, a few days later the Council dropped the proposal and stated that the existing law against false registration of cases is sufficient. In the context of the procedural change made in 2004, certain minority rights groups have stated that procedural changes won’t prevent misuse of the law since even present procedures and standards are not being properly followed.

Because victims of their misapplication have little legal recourse, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have engendered a sense of fear and vulnerability in minority communities. But persons accused are not the only victims. The issue of blasphemy has become so absurdly sensitive that even debating reform can result in a charge of blasphemy, or worse, extrajudicial murder. No prominent political party in Pakistan is addressing or is expected to address this issue with any seriousness. And, as a recent blasphemy case against a university professor (and the lethal targeting of his lawyer) demonstrates, cases are also having a chilling effect on free speech and particularly on advocacy efforts to reform the laws. Though it would be ideal to repeal the laws themselves, in the current political environment that seems altogether impossible.

Piecemeal procedural changes, on the other hand, could provide some relief, but don’t appear to be likely either. In any case, any procedural changes to the laws won’t be effective unless deep-rooted reform of Pakistan’s criminal justice system is forthcoming. It is the near absence of due process and the rule of law — particularly in local areas of the country — that make the manipulation of blasphemy laws so easy and effective.

But changes in laws are not enough to challenge the mind-sets and motivations behind these cases. No meaningful changes can be made to the laws without addressing the culture of intolerance and impunity that permeates Pakistani society. Steps to reform or repeal these laws will have to be paired with far more comprehensive efforts to challenge extremist and sectarian ideology. Tragically, however, instead of investing in effective laws and the necessary civilian infrastructure and programs needed to counter sectarianism, Pakistan is selectively “enforcing” those laws that engender the very extremism it supposedly is attempting to eradicate.

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Tariq Ahmed
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