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Woman Faces Death in Pakistan for Blasphemy--Will the U.N. Support Similar Measures?

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By Pamela Takiff
Advisor, Fighting Discrimination Program

Last month, on November 8, a Pakistani woman from Punjab was sentenced to death by hanging under section 295-C of the country's blasphemy code - which carries a mandatory death sentence for defaming the Prophet Mohammed. Aasia Bibi, a Christian farm worker and mother of five, was accused of making blasphemous comments, following a run-in with Muslim co-workers who refused to drink from a container of water she carried, believing it to be tainted.

On November 29, the Lahore High Court barred Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari from issuing a pardon until her appeal has been exhausted. That could take years - and Bibi has already been in jail since June.

Meanwhile, extremists have threatened to take the law into their own hands if Aasia Bibi is released. An imam from a local mosque has offered a $6,000 (500,000 rupee) reward to anyone who takes her life - if the death sentence is not upheld. Due to death threats and verbal and physical attacks, her husband and children have been forced into hiding. Life as this family knew it - regardless of the outcome of the case - is not possible. Even if acquitted, those charged with blasphemy in Pakistan are marked for life. Canada and Italy have offered asylum to the entire family.

Unfortunately, Aasia Bibi's case is not unique. There are scores of cases from around the globe that provide ample warning of the dangers of enacting a global blasphemy law. Human Rights First recently released a report entitled Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing "Defamation of Religions [pdf], which documents more than 50 cases in 15 countries where blasphemy and similar laws have been abused.  Let's hope the UN delegates are taking note as they prepare to take up this important issue.

Next week, the United Nation's (UN) General Assembly will be voting on a controversial resolution entitled Combating defamation of religions introduced by Morocco on behalf of the 57 member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Supporters of this resolution seek to create internationally-binding blasphemy laws, and claim that such laws are necessary to fight discrimination and protect freedom of religion. In reality, local blasphemy laws are often abused to stifle discussion and dissent, violate freedom of religion and expression - and, as in the case of Aasia Bibi, to settle private disputes motivated by jealousy and rivalry. Blasphemy laws have provoked devastating - and in some instances fatal - consequences for individuals who deviate from the mainstream religion or belong to a minority faith in many of the same countries that support this resolution.

Though this year's resolution will certainly pass again, the good news is that support for it has diminished significantly since it was introduced more than 10 years ago and the resolution is likely to pass with the slimmest margin of support yet.

That eroding support can also be seen beyond the U.N. building. For example, in response to the grave injustice seen in the case of Aasia Bibi, a bill to amend Pakistan's blasphemy laws has been introduced in the National Assembly by the prominent politician, Sherry Rehman. Among other changes, the bill would eliminate the death sentence for those convicted of committing blasphemy and replace it with a ten-year prison term. The bill is intended to "ensure that all citizens of Pakistan have an equal right to constitutional protection and that miscarriages of justice in the name of blasphemy are avoided at all costs." Sherry Rehman noted  that "the amendment to the Blasphemy Laws Act 2010 will not only rationalize the punishment prescribed for offenses relating to religion under sections 295 and 298 of the Pakistani Penal Code, but it will ensure that the concept of criminal intent is taken into account when charging an individual with this offense."

Asma Jahangir, former UN Special Rapporteur and current head of the Pakistani Bar Association, said "We need to rethink our laws in the name of justice and compassion... If we believe in the rule of law, we must believe that laws should protect the religious rights of minorities rather than as a tool to exploit religion."

Even so, this proposal - which still leaves in place laws that violate international standards--has been met with overwhelming resistance by extremists. The fear of appearing "un-Islamic" has deterred advocates for change from publicly declaring their solidarity. The lives of Pakistani Minister for Minority Affairs Shabaz Bhatti, and others who have spoken out against the death sentence, have been threatened.

The tragic example of Aasia Bibi highlights the ways in which blasphemy laws promote an atmosphere of intolerance and can result in devastating consequences for those holding views that differ from the majority or adhere to minority faiths. These laws should not be advanced under the guise of efforts at the UN to establish an international blasphemy code.

All U.N delegations should vote against the "defamation of religions" resolution on the grounds that it fails to recognize the importance of freedom of expression and provides explicit support for national blasphemy and defamation laws. Another strategy is needed: one that both supports existing international norms on freedom of expression and confronts directly the growing problem of hostility and violence targeting members of religious and other minorities.

Hopefully, support for this divisive text will continue to erode and those persecuted under such laws, including Aasia Bibi, will soon find relief.