Rights of Expression, Assembly, Association and Thought (REAT) Network

Monetising rights

The drought in the land of the Bhuttos has claimed the lives of 275 children in 11 months, according to an official list prepared by the district administration. The blasphemy law – as enacted by the crooked General Ziaul Haq in 1979 – has so far led to 508 deaths, social persecution, imprisonment, and extra-judicial murders.
Most of the cases are concentrated in the land of the Sharifs and both dynasties claim to be the custodians of their constituents’ rights (as enshrined in the constitution) and equitable development.
Ostensibly, and ironically, deaths off famine, misrule and an abysmally mean way of compensating victims, accompanied by hollow rhetoric, underscore the way the landed aristocracy and entrenched business/industrial tycoons deal with the lives of the citizens of Pakistan – who are all supposed to be equal under Article 25 of the constitution.
The Sindh government – comprising insensitive waderas, patharidars, patrons of organised crime and led by those pretending to be the Bhutto family – is now scrambling for ‘look good-feel good’ financial and food packages for the impoverished Thar region. Its wayward chief minister Shah believes that poverty and disease are two different things, and that poverty is no crime (this is what he told the provincial assembly).
Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has announced a five million compensation for the Kot Radha Kishan couple. Will these compensations alleviate the root causes of deaths in Sindh and Punjab? Is human life – those humans who propel political businessmen into positions of power through their vote – just worth these hand-outs?
Statistics compiled by the Centre for Research and Security Studies suggest that out of the 508 “accused of having committed blasphemy”, a staggering 61 were murdered extra-judicially. At least 13 faced lynching attempts. About 22 find themselves on death row, while 11 are serving life imprisonments.
Over 90 percent of these cases took place in the aftermath of the Zia additions to the blasphemy laws, predominantly in Punjab where vested interests – the Right and organised crime, led and supported by landlords and the clergy – have thoroughly abused this law to settle personal, family or financial accounts, ably assisted by the police and politicians.
This calamitous attitude by the ruling elites also flies in the face of the observations and recommendations made by the Justice Iqbal Hameed-ur-Rehman tribunal which investigated the 2009 Gojra riots. Based on interviews of 543 persons, the justice wrote in the final report:
“It is vehemently objected that our law segregates Muslims from non-Muslims and prevents non-Muslims of having much control of their lives. The system fosters injustice, sectarian violence and violence between religions. In addition it is also propagated that the authorities do little to prevent attack on minorities or to punish the perpetrators of religion-inspired violence.
“As far as the objection about segregation nature of the above penal laws is concerned, though it is not the whole truth yet, it is reality that some provisions provide protection only to the Muslims.”
The tribunal noted : “Although sections 295-B, 295-C, 298-A, 298-B and 298-C were inserted in PPC but no safety valve for avoiding misuse of the same was provided in the relevant provisions of procedural law i.e. section 196 & 196-B CrPC (Criminal Procedure Code).
The commission also underscored the apathy of law-enforcement institutions (police and intelligence agencies) and made ten recommendations, including greater coordination among security agencies, to prevent abuse of blasphemy laws.
Even former chief justice of the Supreme Court Tassaduq Hussain Jillani in a landmark judgement (June 19, 2014) directed that the ‘federal government should constitute a) taskforce for developing a strategy of religious tolerance; b) Special Police Force to protect the places of worship of minorities; c) National Council for minorities rights be set up; and d) take appropriate steps to ensure that hate speech in social media is discouraged.’
Peter Jacob, a Pakistani Christian human rights activist, says federal and provincial ministries should take responsibility for monitoring, protecting and defending cases against persons accused of blasphemy.
He underlines the need to comprehensively legislate the issue afresh as well as having a governmental institutional watchdog to prevent abuse of the blasphemy laws. Human rights defenders also advocate the urgency to have at least a three-member bench adjudicate blasphemy charges and also to introduce stringent punitive action against the area police for connivance with perpetrators.
But does such advice matter to the affluent, insulated ruling, and indifferent ruling elites – surrounded by VVIP protocols – living off the blood and sweat of poor citizens?

The writer is the executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies and Friends with REAT Network.

* This Article is originally published in The News on 17th November, 2014

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