The Pakistan government must urgently reform its blasphemy laws and ensure the safety of Ramsha Masih, a Christian girl arrested by police for allegedly committing an act of blasphemy, Amnesty International said today.
“This case illustrates the erosion of the rule of law and the dangers faced by those accused of blasphemy in Pakistan,” said Polly Truscott, Amnesty International’s South Asia director.
On Wednesday 17 August, Ramsha Masih and her mother were arrested by police in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. The police reacted under pressure from people who were demonstrating after a local preacher accused Ramsha of burning pages of a religious text. This is an offence that may be punishable with death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
“Amnesty International is extremely concerned for Ramsha’s safety. In the recent past individuals accused of blasphemy have been killed by members of the public,” Truscott said.
On hearing the accusations, some residents of the neighbourhood attacked Ramsha Masih’s mother and other members of the local Christian community. Up to 300 Christian residents fled the area and the Masih family remains in hiding.
On 18 August, the President of Pakistan ordered an investigation into the case and called on the authorities to “protect the life and property of everyone”.
“Amnesty International welcomes the President’s swift response to this case, but the President’s actions will count for little unless they are followed by greater efforts to reform the blasphemy laws to ensure they cannot be used maliciously to settle disputes or enable private citizens to take matters into their own hands,” Truscott added.
“After four years of failing to deliver on repeated promises to review laws that are ‘detrimental to religious harmony’ like the blasphemy laws, now is the time for the Pakistan government to act.
“The continued failure to reform these laws has effectively sent the message that anyone can commit outrageous abuses and attempt to excuse them as defence of religious sentiments.”
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws make it an offence to destroy, damage or defile places of worship or sacred objects the Quran or Prophet Muhammad. The penalties range from a fine to life imprisonment or death.
But their vague formulation, along with inadequate investigation by authorities and intimidation by mobs, spurred on by some local preachers and religious groups, has promoted vigilantism in Pakistan and especially in Punjab province.
“The authorities must also ensure Ramsha Masih, a child, who reportedly suffers from downs syndrome, her family and Islamabad’s Christian community, are protected against intimidation and attacks,” said Truscott.
“The authorities must also prosecute all individuals that incite the community to commit acts of violence on the basis of the blasphemy laws.”
Religious minorities have been disproportionately accused of blasphemy. But a large proportion of victims are from the Muslim majority.