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South Asia

Pakistan: Critics warn over blasphemy case against ex-PM Imran Khan

Published : May 04, 2022 17:04 IST T+T-
Imran Khan is in trouble over the actions of his political supporters.

Imran Khan is in trouble over the actions of his political supporters.

Critics slam the Pakistani government’s move to file blasphemy charges against ex-PM Imran Khan and his party leaders.

A blasphemy case was registered against former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan last week, drawing sharp condemnation from his supporters and stoking concerns that the move would deepen political polarization in the country. The charges come after the nation's new Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his delegation were heckled by some Pakistani pilgrims during a recent official visit to Saudi Arabia.

Sharif's supporters allege that the hecklers were linked to Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. Pakistani authorities then charged Khan with blasphemy. Several videos posted on social media have shown people chanting "traitors” and "thieves” as Sharif's team members visited a mosque in Medina. The incident caused outrage in Pakistan, with many clerics saying that raising slogans in a religious site was disrespectful of the mosque and of Islam. Saudi authorities said that they arrested several Pakistanis for their alleged involvement in the incident.

Pakistan's Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah defended the blasphemy charges leveled against Khan and vowed to bring to justice those behind the incident in Saudi Arabia. Sanaullah even noted that the former prime minister and his aides could be arrested if evidence linked them to the incident. Khan and PTI supporters have rejected the blasphemy charges as "ridiculous” and asked the Islamabad High Court to dismiss them. The court is expected to hear the case on May 9.

Weaponizing blasphemy against Khan?

Critics warn that the blasphemy charges could pose serious risks to the lives of not only Khan and PTI leaders but also their families. "It is not only they who may be at risk but the lives of their families have also been jeopardized,” said Asad Butt of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

"The lives of these leaders would gravely be at risk during public gatherings, where any fanatic can target them,” he told DW , adding that authorities must withdraw the charges immediately. The rights watchdog also urged the government not to "weaponize” blasphemy allegations. "No government or political party can afford to allow allegations of blasphemy to be weaponized against its rivals," it wrote on Twitter.

Even some politicians of the governing coalition oppose the move to file the blasphemy charges. Kishwar Zehra, a lawmaker from the Muttehida Quami Movement party, a government ally, believes the filing of the cases is very dangerous. The government must quash these cases and resolve the issue through political dialogue, she told DW , adding that pursuing these cases would further poison the political environment in the country. "I would urge political parties to keep religion and politics separated," she appealed.

A sensitive subject

Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in the Muslim country where people have been killed merely on the suspicion of insulting religion or blaspheming against Islam's prophet Muhammad. In December, a Sri Lankan working in a factory in the eastern business hub of Sialkot was killed by an enraged mob over blasphemy suspicions, an incident that made headlines far beyond Pakistan.

In 1947, Pakistan inherited the blasphemy laws from its former British colonial rulers, who had made it a criminal offense to commit "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religious belief." In later decades, the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq introduced extensions of the laws between 1977 and 1988, including life imprisonment for people found guilty of defiling or desecrating the Quran. Later, the death penalty was declared mandatory for anyone blaspheming against the prophet Muhammad. According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, about 80 people are known to be jailed in Pakistan on blasphemy charges — half of whom face life in prison or the death penalty.

Exploited to settle personal disputes

Activists and rights groups believe that Pakistan's blasphemy laws are too draconian and can easily be misused. The laws are often employed in cases that have little to do with blasphemy and are used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas. Critics say that in particular Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis — a minority Islamic sect — are often targeted.

While rights organizations have long called on the government to amend or repeal the contentious laws, conservative and right-wing outfits have strongly opposed allowing any amendment to the laws. Shazia Khan, a Lahore-based activist, thinks that such laws should be abolished altogether to prevent their exploitation. Most of these cases are filed to settle personal scores, she told DW , adding that the laws should be abolished to save the country from plunging into anarchy and extremist frenzy.