New Delhi: It is ‘just another normal day’ in Pakistan as it can’t get over its blasphemy laws, with yet another local court delivering a death sentence. This time to a school principal whose, “abnormality”, the court said, fell short of “legal insanity”. The media, however, conveniently played down the accused’s status as the owner and head of a private school.
A local court in Pakistan’s Lahore charged a school principal, claiming to be the ‘Prophet of Islam’, under its blasphemy law, Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code, and also fined her PKR 50,000.
The charge against the school principal, Salma Tanvir, was that she used derogatory words against Prophet Mohammad and denied the finality of the prophethood, claiming to be the Prophet of Islam in pamphlets she distributed.
Tanvir’s counsel had argued that she wasn’t of sound mind, but that didn’t sit well with the judge who said she was able enough to run a school single-handedly and could not be mentally unstable. The court also noted that a report by the medical board of the Punjab Institute of Mental Health termed the accused fit to stand trial.
The conviction and death sentence for blasphemy drew attention to the country’s controversial laws yet again. Pakistani human rights activist Arif Aajakia said that the death sentence shows how “a banana republic champions human rights”.
Ex-Pakistan ambassador to the United States, Hussain Haqqani pointed out that the media had downplayed the fact that the accused was a principal and just wrote, “Pakistan’s blasphemy nightmare continues”.
Pakistan’s Blasphemy Nightmare Continues. Local press plays down facts that she was a school principal pic.twitter.com/b2uCzNxzXb
— Husain Haqqani (@husainhaqqani) September 28, 2021
— Arif Aajakia (@arifaajakia) September 29, 2021
For some Twitter users, this was “a normal day in Pakistan”, while for others, this showed how Prime Minister Imran Khan needed to up his game on Pakistan’s human rights before “volunteering as the spokesperson for the Taliban”.
Woman gets death, fine for blasphemy in Lahore – just another normal day in Pakistan. https://t.co/Hue3s9jVnz
— Usman (@UsmanAhmad_iam) September 28, 2021
Imran Khan needs to up his game on Pakistan's human rights record before volunteering himself as the spokesperson for the Taliban and speak of human rights. Death sentence for blasphemy? So 7th century.https://t.co/zzEqLIQ5jI
— Laila Kanon 🇳🇿 🇲🇾 🇮🇱 (@LailaKanon) September 29, 2021
Coverage in the media
Most media houses in Pakistan failed to mention Tanvir is a school principal in their headlines. Samaa TV ran with the headline: ‘Lahore woman sentenced to death for blasphemy’, while Dawn’s headline read: ‘Woman gets death, fine for blasphemy in Lahore.’ The Express Tribune wrote: ‘Woman awarded death sentence for claiming to be prophet.’
There was also a startling absence of television coverage. The YouTube pages of Samaa TV, GeoNews, Ary News or Express News didn’t even have a dedicated news item or video segment covering the court order.
A Facebook user questioned this death sentence, not because of the ethics of capital punishment, but because Qadiyanis and Ahmedis haven’t been charged under blasphemy laws. ‘Qadiyanis’ is a term used to refer to members of the Ahmadiyya movement started by Mirza Ghulam Ahmed. Ahmed believed he had been appointed a messiah by God and was revered by Ahmadiyya Muslims as the promised Messiah.
British-era laws in Pakistan
The blasphemy laws are colonial-era laws in Pakistan and are quite controversial. According to a report by Human Rights Without Frontiers, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are misused regularly. The report succinctly captures the controversy surrounding the laws: “The increasing trend of the misuse of the Blasphemy Law intensifies communal hatred, religious intolerance and persecution against religious minorities in Pakistan. The law is often used as a tool to settle personal scores, false witnesses are bought, and the burden of proof lies with the accused. These incidents have fostered a climate of religiously motivated violence and persecution that is mounting day by day.”
Usually, people convicted under blasphemy are unable to appoint counsel of their choice since most advocates usually don’t involve themselves in such sensitive cases.
Earlier this year, the European Union parliament appealed to Pakistan to repeal its blasphemy laws. The courts also urged Pakistan to release two Christians — Shagufta Kausar and her husband Shafqat Emmanuel — who have been on death row since 2014 for allegedly insulting the Prophet and sending a blasphemous text to a shopkeeper.
The country’s social media is eerily silent on the latest conviction.
The worst of Pakistan right here.
Don't reply to me if you want to defend hanging someone for having an opinion. I'll block you.
Better you unfollow me. https://t.co/EMslpZhTMp
— Dennis (@DennisCricket_) September 28, 2021
Pakistan is 1 of 13 countries worldwide that maintains the death penalty for blasphemy/apostasy. Here we see that law in action. The woman, the principal of a private school, was accused of distributing literature that denied 'the finality of prophethood'. https://t.co/TmAbgmDmp8
— Humanists UK (@Humanists_UK) September 28, 2021
The blasphemy laws enjoy the strong support of religious clerics and far-Right extremist parties like Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan.
The rise in popularity of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which advocates for blasphemy laws, is a source of great concern for secular and liberal parties in Pakistan.#امیرمحترم_کورہاکرو pic.twitter.com/vQ0gnYyWFg
— ŤLP_ 🏴 (@abc_9263) September 27, 2021
Controversial blasphemy cases
The search for the most horrifying case of blasphemy in Pakistan’s recent history throws up the name of Asia Bibi, a Christian accused of insulting the Prophet during an argument with her Muslim co-workers. She was sentenced to death and spent almost a decade in solitary confinement, on death row.
Bibi was acquitted of all charges by the Pakistani Supreme Court in 2018. But in the meantime, Punjab’s then serving governor Salman Taseer, a known liberal who was campaigning for Bibi and openly criticised the country’s blasphemy laws, was shot dead in January 2011 by his own bodyguard. Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard, shot Taseer 27 times. He was later hanged. Qadri was hailed a hero by extremist religious groups in Pakistan.
In May 2021, dozens of villagers attacked Golra police station in Islamabad looking to lynch a suspect held for further investigation under blasphemy charges.
In 2017, angry students lynched to death 23-year-old Mashal Khan, a journalism student at Abdul Wali Khan University, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Khan was accused of writing blasphemous posts on social media. It was later found that allegations against Khan were unfounded. Khan is but one statistic on a long list. Human Rights Without Frontiers reports at least 128 people have been killed by mobs after they were accused of committing blasphemy.
The report, released on 9 September 2021, says that between 1987 and 2021, 1,865 people in Pakistan had been charged under blasphemy laws. There was a significant spike in 2020 when 200 cases were registered under the controversial law.
Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel were finally acquitted by the Pakistani Supreme Court this year, but only after they had already spent seven years in jail. In a sharp editorial, the country’s premier newspaper Dawn condemned the laws.
“Parliament must gather the courage to talk about these issues. Lawmakers must also confront how false accusations strip accused citizens of their freedoms with no redress. Moreover, in many chilling cases, an accusation of blasphemy alone — with no evidence or formal legal process — can result in violence and death,” the newspaper noted in its editorial published on 5 June 2021.