Christian blasphemy accused to stand trial under anti-terror laws, judge rules

A Christian blasphemy accused will stand trial under Pakistan’s anti-terrorism laws after a judge rejected his application for the removal of the “illegal” charges, his lawyer said.

Supreme Court Advocate Rana Abdul Hameed said that Lahore Anti-Terrorism Judge Abher Gul Khan on July 6 rejected his application seeking the elimination of the terrorism charges against 32-year-old Imran Rehman, arrested by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) from Lahore on Sept 14, 2022, on allegations that he had shared a blasphemous message in a WhatsApp group. The First Information Report (FIR) was registered the same day.

The government is working on draft amendments to allow blasphemy cases to be tried under Pakistan’s anti-terrorism laws, but at present they do not come under their purview, Hameed said.

“There’s no legal provision yet for trying blasphemy accused under anti-terror laws,” he said. “The FIA’s act of including Anti-Terrorism Act sections in the FIR is completely illegal, yet the judge has denied our plea.”

The charges against Rehman, who worked at a ticket office of the Lahore Metro Bus System, are baseless, he said. Rehman was charged under Sections 295-A, 295-B, 295-C, and 298 of Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes, Section 109/34 and Section 11 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, and sections 6(2)(1), 7, 8, and 9 of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997.

Rehman denies that he shared blasphemous content on social media. His lawyer, Hameed said he will file a petition in the Lahore High Court to drop the terrorism charges.

Suspects accused of blasphemy under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), especially those belonging to vulnerable and marginalized groups, suffer severe trauma and are subjected to unfair trials, Hameed said.

“This unjust labeling of blasphemy accused as terrorists creates a perception that the accused poses a serious threat to society not only as a blasphemer but also as a terrorist,” he said.

“My client is under severe mental pressure as he is imprisoned in a barrack where four out of six prisoners suffer from mental illness. These false accusations and label of being a suspected terrorist are taking a toll on both his mental and physical health, and it’s important that the courts realise the injustice being meted out to the poor man.”

Joseph Jansen, chairman of the Voice for Justice advocacy group, said Rehman was father to two minor girls and was the sole breadwinner for the family.

“His family is deeply distressed and concerned for his well-being,” Jansen said. “They allege that Rehman was subjected to severe torture and forced to confess to a crime he did not commit.”

The rights advocate said that police were continuing to register blasphemy cases under ATA in violation of the intended mandate of the law.

“Rehman’s case underscores the urgent need for a comprehensive review of the laws and procedures related to blasphemy accusations to ensure fairness, protect the rights of the accused, and prevent potential abuses of power,” Jansen said.

Moreover, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are incompatible with international human rights standards, he said.

“The accuser who levels blasphemy allegations against any person is bound to prove malicious intent, but this stipulation is missing in legislation and is not taken into account during blasphemy trials,” Jansen said.

On June 17, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and Economic Affairs Minister Sardar Ayaz Sadiq signed an agreement with leaders of the extremist Islamist party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) that would allow blasphemy cases to be tried under the country’s anti-terrorism law.

The agreement stipulates that punishment under Section 7 of the ATA would apply to suspects charged with committing blasphemy under the Pakistan Penal Code’s Section 295-C against making derogatory remarks about Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

The government also agreed to establish a “Counter Blasphemy Wing” under the FIA to take action against the dissemination of “blasphemous content” on the internet. In addition, the agreement calls for speedy trials of blasphemy suspects, as well as a swift appeals process.

For the agreement to take effect, the government must amend the ATA through parliament.

Blasphemy laws are often used as a weapon of revenge against both Muslims and non-Muslims to settle personal scores or to resolve disputes over money, property, or business. In a religiously sensitive country, a mere allegation is enough to provoke a mob to riot and lynch those accused of blasphemy.

Blasphemy allegations have also led to mob attacks on Christian settlements, especially in Punjab Province.

On July 8, police arrested Zaki Masih after a Sargodha area Muslim accused him of insulting Islam in a Facebook post. On June 30, tension gripped Chak 49 Shumaali village of Sargodha after a Biblical verse posted on Facebook by Haroon Shahzad was deemed disrespectful to animal sacrifice.

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