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`Amendments to blasphemy laws likely to exacerbate persecution of minorities`

Pakistan`s top human rights body has expressed deep concern over amendments to the country`s controversial blasphemy laws, saying they are likely to exacerbate the persecution of the beleaguered religious minorities and minority sects.

Pakistan`s National Assembly unanimously passed the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act 2023 on Tuesday, enhancing the minimum punishment for those who insult the revered personalities of Islam from three to 10 years along with a fine of Rs 1 million.

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) Chairperson Hina Jilani in a statement issued from Lahore on Friday said the enactment would further increase persecutions of the minorities. “While the stated aim of this bill is to curb sectarianism, HRCP believes it is likely to exacerbate the persecution of Pakistan`s beleaguered religious minorities and minority sects,” according to her statement.

The bill also makes the offence non-bailable, thereby directly violating the constitutionally guaranteed right to personal liberty under Article 9, the HRCP said.
“Given Pakistan`s troubled record of the misuse of such laws, these amendments are likely to be weaponised disproportionately against religious minorities and sects, resulting in false FIRs, harassment and persecution,” it said.

The human rights body said that increasing the penalty for alleged blasphemy will aggravate misuse of the law to settle personal vendettas, as is often the case with blasphemy allegations. “At a time when civil society has been calling for amendments to these laws to prevent their abuse, strengthening this punishment will do the exact opposite,” it said.

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Earlier, Maulana Abdul Akbar Chitrali of the hardline Jamaat-e-Islami party moved the bill in the National Assembly, saying that the punishment for insulting a member of Parliament was five years, but the same for disrespecting the revered personalities of Islam was three years.

The statement of objectives of the bill said disrespecting the companion of the Prophet and other personalities not only promoted terrorism and disruption in the country but also hurt people from all walks of life.

Later, the house unanimously passed the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill. In Section 298-A of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), the bill said, the punishment against the person who disrespected the wives, family and companions of the Prophet was imprisonment for a minimum of three years along with a nominal penalty.

The bill enhances the minimum punishment for those who insult the revered personalities from three to 10 years along with a fine of Rs 1 million. Under Pakistan`s penal code, the offence of blasphemy is punishable by death or life imprisonment. Critics say they have been used by extremist groups to persecute minority faiths and unfairly target minorities.

Several people have been killed by the extremists, though none have been executed under these laws. These regulations were introduced by former military ruler Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s to win the support of religious groups.

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