The current case of Rimsha Masih displays all that is wrong with Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law.
Rimsha, believed to be between 10 and 13 years old, comes from an impoverished Christian family living near the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. She reportedly suffers from Down Syndrome. Rimsha was accused of burning pages with Koranic passages, and police took her into custody for her own protection on August 17 after she was reportedly assaulted. According to local sources, protests against her teetered toward violence, with a mob demanding that police turn her over to be killed. Threats against the Christian community were also made, forcing almost 400 families to flee to other parts of the capital and driving the girl’s own family into hiding.
In response, police filed more than 150 first information reports against protesters who damaged property and threatened violence. President Asif Ali Zardari has taken notice of the case and asked for an explanation of the arrest. An influential group of Islamic leaders has also come out in her support, a positive development that will be critical if she is to be released and the ongoing abuses addressed. For the time being, however, Rimsha remains behind bars.
The blasphemy law, one of the legacies of former dictator General Zia ul-Haq, is ripe for abuse. His regime added to the penal code severe punishments for blasphemy and other activities deemed insulting to Islam. Article 295, Section B, makes defiling the Koran punishable by life imprisonment. Under Section C of the same article, remarks found to be 'derogatory' against the Prophet Mohammed carry the death penalty.
The law has no evidentiary standard, no requirement to prove intent, and no procedural safeguards to penalize false allegations. It provides no guidance on what constitutes a blasphemous activity, meaning the standard is essentially whatever offends the accuser. In addition, blasphemy offenses are considered cognizable, so that the police file charges and can arrest without a warrant. And blasphemy is a non-compoundable crime, a category that does not allow for out-of-court settlements. Consequently, once a charge is filed, it is difficult for the case to be quashed, and the accuser cannot simply drop the charges.
Rimsha is not the first victim of this law, and she likely won’t be the last. While the state has not executed anyone for blasphemy, the law has created a climate of vigilantism, resulting in accused individuals being murdered by societal actors or killed while in police custody. A gruesome example took place in July, when a Muslim man suspected of blasphemy was pulled from a police station and killed by a mob, which then burned his body with gasoline.