Feb 3, 2021 | Freedom of Religion and Belief

As of 1 February 2021, HRWF had registered and documented 53 cases of believers of all faiths who were in prison in Pakistan: 28 Protestants, 15 Sunni Muslims, 5 Ahmadis, 2 Anglicans, 1 Catholic, 1 Hindu and 1 Shia (See https://hrwf.eu/prisoners-database/). All Christians behind bars were prosecuted on blasphemy charges. See here after what we published in our global report “In Prison For Their Faith 2020”. See full report at (https://hrwf.eu)

Reasons for the Persecution of Protestants in Pakistan

In July 2018, the US government estimated the total population of Pakistan to be 207.9 million. According to the provisional results of a national census conducted in 2017, 96% of the population is Muslim. According to the 2014 government registration documents cited by the press, there are approximately 1.4 million Hindus and 1.3 million Christians.[1]

In 1956, Pakistan was established as an Islamic Republic. Islam is still the official state religion, but the Constitution protects religious freedom by banning faith-based discrimination and upholding the right to religious practice and education. However, in practice, the state’s blasphemy laws have created a hostile environment and incited mob violence that targets members of minority religious groups such as Protestants.[2]

Blasphemy laws have created ‘a culture of impunity for violent attacks following accusations’,[3] as some religious fanatics believe that they are entitled to take the law into their own hands. There have been many instances where the local administration and police have either colluded with perpetrators or have stood by and done nothing to assist the accused out of fear of the crowd.

Additionally, the use of blasphemy laws has become a quick way of resolving conflicts arising from business rivalry, honour disputes, and disagreements over money and property. These laws have been instrumentalised for private settlement of scores in many cases. The accused are often lynched or killed by mobs before authorities can place them under arrest.

Pakistan is second only to Iran in its deviation from international law principles with its blasphemy laws, as well as in the severity of penalties for those convicted under them.[4]

Protestants in Prison in Pakistan

All Protestants in prison have been victims of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws which are used and abused to persecute non-Muslim minorities and to settle private disputes.

Protestants behind bars: some statistics

As of 1 June 2020, HRWF documented 31 cases of Protestants in its Prisoners’ Database.[5] All of these individuals were either convicted of or charged with blasphemy. Ten of them were sentenced to death, seven received a life sentence, two were given six years in prison and in 12 cases the sentences are unknown or they are awaiting trial.

It is common for there to be a lengthy delay with trials related to blasphemy as these cases are often moved between judges and lawyers are too afraid to defend the accused. This is unsurprising considering the pressure placed by radical and violent religious groups on judges to convict, and the hostile targeting of lawyers and politicians alike.[6] In the past, judges have been attacked for acquitting blasphemy defendants and two politicians who discussed reforming the legislation have been shot dead.

Articles of the Penal Code

Prisoners are typically charged under the blasphemy laws in the Pakistani Penal Code:

Section 295-A: ‘Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious   feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs. Whoever, with malicious and deliberate intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of the citizens of Pakistan, by words, either spoken or written or by visible representations, insults or attempts to insult the religion or religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, or with fine, or with both’.

Section 295-B: ‘Defiling the Holy Qur’an. Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an or of an extract there from or used it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life’.

Section 295-C: ‘Use of derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet.      Whoever, by words either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammad (peace upon him) shall be punished by death and shall also be liable to fine’. [7]

In the last 20 years, Pakistani authorities have not executed individuals sentenced to death on blasphemy charges;[8] instead they are incarcerated indefinitely.

International advocacy

In a resolution dated 15 June 2017 concerning human rights defenders and the death penalty in Pakistan, the European Parliament stated that it:

Is deeply concerned at the continued use of the ‘blasphemy law’, and believes this is heightening the climate of religious intolerance; notes the findings of the Supreme Court of Pakistan that individuals accused of ‘blasphemy’ ‘suffer beyond proportion or repair’ in the absence of adequate safeguards against misapplication or misuse of such laws; calls, therefore, on the Pakistani Government to repeal Sections 295-A, 295-B and 295-C of the Penal Code, and to put in place effective procedural and institutional safeguards to prevent the misuse of ‘blasphemy’ charges; calls also on the government to take a stronger position in condemning vigilantism towards alleged ‘blasphemers’.[9]

On 19 January 2018, the European Commission released a report for the European Parliament and Council regarding The EU Special Incentive Arrangement for Sustainable Development and Good Governance (‘GSP+’) assessment of Pakistan covering the period 2016 – 2017. In this report, the European Commission raised concerns about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws being used to persecute individuals on religious grounds several times, and the state of religious freedom in Pakistan more broadly. The European Commission stated that:

Pakistan is requested to follow up on the recommendation to repeal all blasphemy laws or to amend them in compliance with the strict requirements of the Covenant; and to ensure the investigation and prosecution of those involved in incitement of or engagement in violent acts against others based on allegations of blasphemy.[10]

In its 2020 Annual Report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that the US State Department designate Pakistan as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for ‘engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom’. Despite being listed as a CPC in 2019, the US State Department waived Pakistan from any sanctions due to ‘“important national interest of the United States”’. USCIRF recommended that this waiver is rescinded in 2020 in light of the extreme abuses of religious freedom in Pakistan.[11]

USCIRF also recommended that the Pakistani government:

  • release blasphemy prisoners and other individuals imprisoned for their religion or beliefs;
  • repeal the blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws; until repeal is accomplished, enact reforms to make blasphemy a bailable offense, require evidence by accusers, ensure proper investigation by senior police officials, allow authorities to dismiss unfounded accusations, and enforce existing Penal Code articles criminalizing perjury and false accusations.

[1] For more religious statistics, see U.S. Department of State, Office of International Religious Freedom, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Report on international Religious Freedom: Pakistan 2018, 2018. https://www.state.gov/reports/2018-report-on-international-religious-freedom/pakistan/.

[2] United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Annual Report, USCIRF Recommended for countries of particular concern: Pakistan 2020, 2020   https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/Pakistan.pdf.

[3] Ibid.

[4] U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Respecting rights? Measuring the World’s blasphemy Laws, April 7, 2016. https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/Blasphemy%20Laws%20Report.pdf.

[5] Our Database is updated on a regular basis. For more details about imprisoned Protestants, see https://hrwf.eu/prisonersdatabase/.

[6] United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Annual Report, USCIRF Recommended for countries of particular concern: Pakistan 2020, 2020. https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/Pakistan.pdf.

[7] Pakistani Penal Code http://www.pakistani.org/pakistan/legislation/1860/actXLVof1860.html, and, https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/49b920582.pdf.

[8] United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Annual Report, USCIRF Recommended for countries of particular concern: Pakistan 2020, 2020. https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/Pakistan.pdf.

[9] European Parliament, Resolution on Pakistan, notably the situation of human rights defenders and the death penalty (2017/2723(RSP)) June 15, 2017. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-8-2017-0268_EN.html.

[10] European Commission, The EU Special Incentive Arrangement for Sustainable Development and Good Governance (‘GSP+’) assessment of Pakistan covering the period 2016 -2017, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (SWD (2018, 29 final), January 1, 2018. https://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2018/january/tradoc_156544.pdf.

[11] United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Annual Report, USCIRF Recommended for countries of particular concern: Pakistan 2020, 2020. https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/Pakistan.pdf.