24 January 2023 :
In a move that has alarmed human rights activists in Pakistan, the Shehbaz Sharif government has approved a bill that will strengthen the country's contentious anti-blasphemy laws. Pakistan's National Assembly unanimously passed the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act 2023 on January 17, enhancing the minimum punishment for those who insult the revered personalities of Islam from three to 10 years along with a fine of 10 lakh Pakistani rupees.
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.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has said that these amendments are likely to exacerbate the persecution of the beleaguered religious minorities and minority sects.
The HRCP Chairperson, Hina Jilani, in a statement issued from Lahore on January 20, 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.
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.
In a 2021 report, the United Nations experts said they were concerned by the continued persecution and acts of violence perpetrated by state and non-state actors in Pakistan, fuelled by claims of apostasy and blasphemy and often targeting religious or belief minorities.