April issue 2013

By | Interview | Published 11 years ago

Lawyers are the proponents of justice and are said to represent the educated sections of society. Why, then, do they shower rose petals on a murderer like Mumtaz Qadri?

Lawyers are part of this diverse society. There are 90,000 lawyers in Pakistan, and there are extremists, too, among the lawyers. Some of them are very well-known for their radicalism. They won’t refrain from persecuting liberal people in the bar. Lawyers have been instigating clerics on the issue of blasphemy. Extremism and religious bigotry has increased among the lawyers nowadays because the liberals have given up. The ground has been left open for bigots.

What forced Zia-ul-Haq to make the blasphemy laws stringent?

Religious elements were Zia’s constituency and they needed a legal handle to scare their opponents. Zia provided them this instrument. Earlier, there were sections 295 and 295-A that had a different connotation for blasphemy. They empowered a deputy commissioner to detain someone who, in his opinion, had made a blasphemous speech.

Death was not the punishment for blasphemy at that time.

Religious figures support this law saying that the law is good but it is being misused. Its misuse should be stopped.

Any law that can be misused is a bad and wrong law, according to jurisprudence. Before Zia’s time, only two cases of blasphemy were reported. Interestingly, one was filed by the Ahmadis against the Christians — the Punjab Religious Book Society vs. State, 1960. In this case, it was declared that the book Mizan-ul-Haq, which compared Islam with Christianity, could not banned. However, objectionable excerpts that could have amounted to blasphemy should be removed. The second case was filed by Christians, that I am unable to recall right now.

Why can’t society accept the acquittal of those who are accused of committing blasphemy? Religious fanatics have killed 52 people, who were accused of blasphemy but not convicted. Some of them were either killed in police lock-up or in the court premises.

We are an angry nation. We need to vent our anger and we do it by such destructive and devastating acts.

The right wing maintains that blasphemy laws can never be abolished or amended. Do you think so too?

The language of this law has so many negative innuendos. It does not look at the matter in a mature way. There is no mens rea [a criminal intention or knowledge that an act is wrong] in such cases, which exists in other criminal cases. For example, a child can say something which, he/she has no idea, can be construed as blasphemous. I got bail for an insane woman, who used to abuse everyone. The mens rea is totally absent in such cases.

The right wing argues that all other laws are misused, so let the blasphemy laws be misused too. But there is huge difference between the misuse of other laws and the blasphemy laws. Other laws are misused without emotion. But in blasphemy cases, emotions run so high that people feel no guilt in killing others in the name of love for the Prophet (PBUH). Moreover, whenever a law is legislated in the name of religion, it is very difficult to abolish or amend it. Britain got rid of the blasphemy laws after a tough struggle. However, the law still exists in the common law of Northern Ireland. Religious legislation is always very emotional.

So, people will continue to kill each other in the name of religion, and one shouldn’t expect any good news on that, score?

There can be good news if the judiciary starts handling blasphemy cases with maturity, and if the prosecution starts acting responsibly. In my opinion, the trial of all blasphemy cases should begin in the High Courts. The judges in the lower courts have no idea about the law. If this suggestion is accepted and implemented in letter and spirit, you will see an improvement.

Do you think a High Court trial is the solution?

Well, in some ways it can provide relief but eventually there is no option but to change the law.

Mohammad Shehzad is an Islamabad-based journalist and researcher.