December issue 2010

By | News & Politics | People | Q & A | Published 13 years ago

“I say, put your money where your mouth is”
– Sherry Rehman, MNA with the PPP


Q: Are you seeking a complete repeal of the Blasphemy Law or just amendments in the law?

A: I am sure you are aware that there is very little appetite for both. My bill proposes a series of amendments to the Blasphemy Law. These amendments reduce the punitive measures introduced during General Zia’s years, which is what made these laws problematic. While repeal is a very correct, purist position, which I have always taken, my experience with the Hudood Ordinance repeal — also a bill moved by me, whilst sitting in opposition — was that it never made it through the National Assembly. However, the amendments were passed even though it took a very long time.

Firstly, these amendments aim to remove the death penalty — 295-C. This changes the basic clause that gives incentive for people to settle scores with each other. The curve of blasphemy-related abuses went up after the penalties were increased and when the death penalty was introduced.

Secondly, the amendments reintroduce mens rea(intent to commit a crime) which is central to criminal law. It is the centrality of proving that the accused acted with malicious and premeditated intent. So when you haul someone up, Muslims and minorities, you must provide the basis of intent. Intent should not be inadvertent. This shifts the burden of proving intent back on the accuser.

Thirdly, these amendments also remove trials from the jurisdiction of the sessions court. Sessions courts very often come under pressure. They get filled with mobs that then pressurise the judges. You remember the case of the two judges who were killed for acquitting the two Christians accused of blasphemy? Sessions courts may take cognisance of the offence, but these cases can only be tried in a High Court, which is under greater public scrutiny. One hopes this would reduce the miscarriages of justice.

Finally, what we never saw was a false accuser being punished. If you wrongly accuse someone, and if the courts acquit the person, the accused are usually killed or mistreated by mobs. If these amendments are passed, the false accuser will be penalised

Q: HRCP’s annual report for 2009 clearly states why the Blasphemy Law must be repealed and why revisions just won’t cut it. You have been part of the HRCP as well. How would you respond to this?

A: You should talk to the HRCP. In an article he wrote recently for a morninger, the HRCP’s director I.A. Rehman, talks about only one procedural change.

The law has been on the statute books since the 1860s, but the British didn’t have the kind of teeth in it that we do. I have not drafted these amendments alone. It took eight to nine months of bilateral and private consultations. It is a good idea to repeal these laws, but my experience with the Hudood Ordinance, and 25 years of campaigning and five years in the assembly, was that the Hudood Ordinance was never repealed. The amendments, on the other hand, as a result of five bills on the Hudood Ordinance tabled in the parliament, have provided a great deal of relief for locked-up women under trumped-up charges. Repeal will do what we seek, but amendments have a greater chance of passing through the house. I run the Jinnah Institute, a think-tank that seeks repeal, but as a legislator I must take a position that will provide relief on the ground. (You must look at Farzana Bari’s report on her survey of jails, which reveals that after the passage of the amendments to the Hudood Ordinance, there were no women in the lock-up).

Q: Generally speaking, your party line does not seem to favour the idea of amendments to the Blasphemy Law. In fact, your Law Minister Babar Awan categorically stated that, “In my presence as the law minister, no one should think of finishing this law.”

A: The PPP is a large party and there are differences of opinion within the party, but as far as I can recall, the president has said that he has appointed a committee under the Minister of Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti to look at these amendments and he (Bhatti) is committed to seeing this through. But it is not simply a question of support within the party. It is about getting a critical mass in the house. Actually, it is about making room to start a discourse. Pakistan has been on the defensive about this law for a long time now. And it is not something I feel we should let the religious right cast a vote over.

Q: Is it just the religious right though, that is proving to be a stumbling block. What about the majority party in the Punjab? The PML-N in the past has supported the death penalty in the Blasphemy Law and that holds sway in the province where two-thirds of blasphemy cases have taken place. Are they backing you?

A: I really can’t say. But, I was on a television programme with one of their legislators and he was fulminating against the law and he said it must be repealed.

In any case, I am not prone to sitting down and not acting. We have to take responsibility. We have to open space for discourse in the mainstream and not just civil society and the media. However, the media and civil society need to support this campaign otherwise the bill will drop like a stone in the assembly. In fact, some of the PML-N representatives have been calling up to tell me that they will support me.

Q: Is there any place for these laws in Islam?

A: I don’t think there is room for them. You can find progressive versions in Islam, within academic Islam and jurisprudence. The point is, law is always made not on exceptions but on the rule. You may find one or two verses against my amendments, but several against injustice. The central thing in Islam is that injustice should not be tolerated. So if so many centuries later, gross and egregious injustice is being perpetrated on the basis of these laws, then there is no place for them. You don’t have to be a religious scholar of one sect or the other to see that. Secondly, the Prophet (PBUH) was never prone to any kind of intolerance and he would have stood actively to safeguard the rights of the minorities, the vulnerable and the poor.

After the Gojra incident, I wrote an article where I quoted the Prophet (PBUH) as saying “I will stand against all, all of the powerful of the city to fight for the rights of the minorities.”

Q: Musharraf’s one-clause amendment that sought to make procedural changes in the Blasphemy Law fizzled due to mullah pressure. Why do you feel the outcome will be different this time around?

A: I just need to put into perspective what the religious right’s view is. They never supported the creation of Pakistan. However, once this country was created, they decided to become the gatekeepers of Islamic dogma and now insist that only they have the right to cast the veto on what constitutes ‘right’ Islamic behaviour. There is no Brahmanism in Islam, and you are allowed to directly access scriptures, text and God, for which there is clear precedence everywhere. As you have seen, they don’t even get votes when there is a free and fair election. Instead, it’s our progressive parties that come into parliament. How long are we going to be on the defensive and allow their fatwas and vetoes against us? Countries where majorities are silent don’t get anywhere.

Sherry Rehman. Photo: AFP

Sherry Rehman. Photo: AFP

Q: Are those in favour of repealing the Blasphemy Law really in the majority? Also, are pro-amendment legislators like yourself in a majority in the PPP?

A: Even if we were not in a majority I would feel it incumbent on me to raise my voice against injustice. Having said that, I do represent a mainstream public discourse. PPP is very much a progressive party. I wrote most parts of the manifesto — most people can stand witness to that — and I think Pakistan, in general, will vote that way. The elite of Pakistan also have to take responsibility. They cannot withdraw behind their high walls. Pakistan is burning with extremist fires and if the elite don’t come out and assume leadership in the public domain, organise rallies and stand up and be counted, then the weak and the dispossessed will continue to be defined by the religious right. The rich need to march for these things too, other than when their own parks and schools are encroached upon. They harp about political leadership: well, then, when you get that leadership you have to muddy your hands in the political arena and stand up and be counted.

Q: You say the majority in Pakistan do not back the injustices of the Blasphemy Law, but the ground realities are different. The elite are not the majority and while the courts have not meted out death sentences, mobs have taken the reins in their own hands?

A: When was the last time our community decided to mob back? Did we pressurise anybody? Our majority does not come out, especially the elite. The elite should take leadership of the silent majority. The dispossessed and the vulnerable need leadership. You have to hold your governments accountable and put pressure on them. The elite do it for tax concessions and the like. They go in big groups and lobby for what matters to them. Here, everybody has an escape clause and they leave the country to burn. I say, put your money where your mouth is.

Q: Is President Asif Zardari backing you?

A: I don’t know, but his public statements say that he wants amendments in the law. The PPP’s position has always been — at the very least — for amendments. I think it is the best time for us to seek reform and push for a strong campaign so we can say to our partners, “Look, we have public pressure behind us.” And yes, Imran Khan has also said in a beeper that he is supporting these amendments, and I appreciate that.

Maheen Bashir Adamjee is an APNS award-winning journalist. She was an editorial assistant at Newsline from 2010-2011.