Omar Waraich: Cruel laws that encourage the persecution of minorities

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The Independent Online

"Nothing is going to happen," insists Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab. Asia Bibi, the Christian woman accused of blasphemy, will not suffer a death sentence; he says it will be struck down by the higher courts. But Taseer adds: "Nevertheless, it is a disgraceful episode. It's an embarrassment for Pakistan."

The case is another grim reminder of how Pakistan's cruel blasphemy laws not only leave minority groups vulnerable, but even encourage their persecution. "These laws are used to victimise Christians and other groups. They are a foul leftover from the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq," says Taseer.

The original blasphemy laws were introduced by the British. In the 1980s, General Zia-ul-Haq added a slew of prejudicial laws. When bigots raised, or invented, charges against heterodox communities, the police and courts did not protect them. When a sectarian militant group charged through the Punjabi village of Gojra in 2009 torching Christian homes, the police took no action. Without evidence, the community was accused of desecrating the Koran. To this day, no one has been brought to justice for the murder of nine Christians.

Human Rights Watch observed this year: "In several instances the police have been complicit in harassment and the framing of false charges against Ahmadis [a Muslim sect], or stood by in the face of anti-Ahmadi violence." The laws give them the protection to do so.

Punjab has the highest levels of attacks against Christians, Ahmadis and Shia Muslims. Rather than challenging the sectarian militant groups responsible, the Provincial Law Minister, Rana Sana Ullah Khan, has courted their votes.

Anything to do with religion carries a neuralgic resonance in Pakistan. Attempts to repeal such laws could trigger a major backlash, many liberals among the political class warn.

The ruling party is a hostage to hardliners. "The reality is that we are a coalition government," says Taseer. The coalition depends on the votes of the pro-Taliban Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam party to remain in power.

Still, there is no reason why the laws cannot be at least amended to afford minority communities the minimum protection they need. As Asia Bibi's case demonstrates, there are lives that depend on it.