Activist in danger for criticizing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws

Persecution | Shaan Taseer’s Christmas remarks prompt threats six years after his father’s murder.
by Julia A. Seymour
Posted 1/09/17, 11:40 am

A Pakistani human rights activist, Shaan Taseer, faces prosecution and death threats for a Christmas Day Facebook post in which he urged people to remember those suffering under the country’s notorious blasphemy laws. Some Muslims reacted by demanding his arrest and execution and sent hundreds of hateful messages and threats.

Police at the Islampura police station say they found a USB drive with video of the message and filed a first investigation report (FIR), the initial stage of investigating a crime in Pakistan, according to The Guardian. But police said the FIR document did not name Taseer because they couldn’t confirm he was in the video.

A fatwa issued by a coalition of Islamist groups known as Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah  declared Taseer’s message “crossed all limits of insulting God and the prophet” and said he is now “condemnable to death,” The Wall Street Journal reported. Taseer lives abroad but often visits Pakistan. He said he thinks hardliners are working “to prepare another Qadri,” to kill him.

Bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri assassinated Taseer’s father, Salman Taseer, on Jan. 4, 2011, after he criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and called for the pardon of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row since 2010. Salman Taseer was governor of the Punjab province.

Proponents and critics of blasphemy laws marked the anniversary of his murder this year with a vigil. At the same time, a few hundred people also protested to venerate his killer, who was executed last year following a trial at Pakistan’s Supreme Court.

Reuters reported Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah planned to harm people attending the vigil for Salman Taseer.

“When police received reports that the Labaik Ya Rasool Allah movement planned to attack the gathering, we reacted pre-emptively and cordoned off the area,” Lahore Deputy Inspector General of Police Haider Ashraf told Reuters. Authorities in Lahore arrested more than 150 hardliners, including about 100 Muslim clerics, after their rally turned violent.

Human rights groups and persecution watchdogs say Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are often used to settle personal scores, primarily against religious minorities such as Christians. Even the country’s Supreme Court has recognized this tendency. In the Qadri ruling it said, “The majority of blasphemy cases are based on false accusations stemming from property issues or other personal or family vendettas rather than genuine instances of blasphemy, and they inevitably lead to mob violence against the entire community.”

Amnesty International just released a new report documenting the abuse of the blasphemy laws and calling on Pakistan to abolish them because they are incompatible with international standards for freedoms of life, thought, conscience, religion, and expression.

People convicted of blasphemy in Pakistan can be sentenced to death, although the country has not yet executed anyone for the crime. If Bibi’s case is not overturned, she will be the first.

Violent mobs stirred up by blasphemy accusations have murdered at least 65 people since 1990, according to the Centre for Research and Security Studies and a Reuters tally.

Julia A. Seymour

Julia has worked as a writer in the Washington, D.C., area since 2005 and was a fall 2012 participant in a World Journalism Institute mid-career class conducted by WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky in Asheville, N.C. Follow Julia on Twitter @SteakandaBible.

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