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The ACSJC is opposed to the use of the death penalty anywhere.  It is calling on Catholics in Australia to appeal for the lives of Ayub Masih, a Christian, and Dr Younas Shaikh, a Muslim.  Both men have been sentenced to death under Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws. 

Only one more avenue for judicial appeal is open to them, and after that, only the President of the Republic of Pakistan has the power to pardon them under these laws.  This paper presents background information on Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws and the cases against Ayub Masih and Dr Younas Shaikh.

1. Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws

Human rights groups, moderate religious groups and minorities widely believe Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to be bad legislation and readily open to abuse. The UN Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance has criticized the vagueness of the wording of these laws, procedural aspects of the laws and the ‘disproportionate and even unacceptable’ authorization of the death penalty.

History of Laws

Sections 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code (1861) were inherited from the British and were aimed at preventing and limiting religious violence by punishing religious offences against religious groups.  Significant changes were made to these laws during the Presidency of Zia-ul-Haq (1977 – 1988).

The UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance visited Pakistan in 1995 and his report outlines the development of the blasphemy laws in the following way:

In 1980, section 298-A was inserted in the Penal Code, by which derogatory remarks “by words, … or by imputation, innuendo or insinuation directly or indirectly” in respect of persons revered in Islam, was made a criminal offence punishable with up to three years’ imprisonment. In 1982, section 295-B was added, making defiling the Koran a criminal offence.

Following the 1974 constitutional amendment, in 1984, ordinance XX added sections 298¬B and 298-C to the Penal Code, expressly referring to Ahmadis and forbidding them to profess to be Muslims and to use Muslim practices in their worship or in the propagation of their faith, any offence being punishable with up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine.

In 1986, the “Criminal Law Amendment Act” amended the Penal Code and inserted the blasphemy law in section 295-C. Under this amendment, any person guilty of direct or indirect blasphemy against the name of the prophet Mohammed is liable to life imprisonment, or even to the death penalty, and to a fine.  The Federal Shariat Court in 1990 in an injunction eliminated the option of life imprisonment, now the death penalty is the mandatory punishment for the offence under section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code...

In 1991, Ordinance XXI, promulgated on 7 July, amended section 295-A of the Penal Code and the Code of Penal Procedure by raising from 2 to 10 years the maximum prison sentence for outraging the religious feeling of any group.  Lastly in 1992, section 123-A of the Penal Code was amended to declare any act prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan as a criminal offence.


In May 1999, the Federal Minister for Religious Affairs announced that the government had decided to amend the blasphemy laws to prevent their misuse.  This announcement contributed to the misunderstanding internationally that the laws had already been amended, and also to the mobilization of extremist groups opposing any such amendment.  No changes have been made to moderate the blasphemy laws.

Impact of the Blasphemy Laws

Pakistan’s Constitution provides a number of clear legal protections for freedom of speech and for religions other than Islam, however the rule of law in Pakistan is tenuous and corruption is widespread.  Despite a large number of blasphemy cases, no one has yet been executed for blasphemy under Pakistani law.

Deaths have occurred as a result of mob violence before trial or following acquittal.  To be accused of blasphemy places a person and their family in danger of death. Even if acquitted, such people can never return to their homes or to any community in which they may be known. If imprisoned, those convicted of blasphemy are treated harshly within the prison system by jailers and by many inmates.

Accusations of blasphemy require little more than a verbal report to the police. Those accused have few chances to defend themselves. Lawyers are reluctant to take on defence cases as they fear repercussion on themselves or their families. The accusation of blasphemy is frequently misused to settle grievances, acquire the property of the accused, or to pressure non-Muslims to convert to Islam.

Until recently the blasphemy laws were considered to be a minority rights issue.  Recent studies by the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference National Commission for Justice and Peace have revealed that the Ahmadis are the main targets of these laws, followed by Christians and people of other minority beliefs.
However, since 1999 it has been observed that the pattern of misuse of these laws has been changing and it is believed that now the great majority of the victims of blasphemy charges are Muslims.

It remains true that members of minority religious groups are proportionately more likely to be accussed of blasphemy and persecuted. The National Commission for Justice and Peace’s Human Rights Monitor 2001 records the details of eleven blasphemy cases registered against Christians, thrity two against Muslims, and sixteen against Ahmadis in 2000.

Responses to the Blasphemy Laws

Each year in its Human Rights Monitor the National Commission for Justice & Peace reports on human rights abuses, including blasphemy cases. The Human Rights Monitor for 2000 reports on nine particular court cases and a range of blasphemy incidents which did not reach the courts.  The Human Rights Monitor 2001 detailed fifty nine blasphemy cases.

The Commission provides some legal aid for specific and significant cases, as do other religious bodies and human rights groups. The Commission is also involved in the relocation of families affected by the blasphemy laws, giving them new identities and assisting them to find employment. The Commission has also lobbied internationally for the repeal of these laws.

Protest actions have been organized on occasions.  A peaceful protest organized by a Muslim group in Karachi in January 2001 met with a violent response from police and seventeen arrests were made including three Christian human rights activists.

The root cause of the discriminatory and easily misused blasphemy laws is seen by many non Government organizations as the lack of a democratic, secular State. Under a secular state Shariat provisions would not apply to non-Muslims.

A less direct and longer-term strategy adopted by civil society actors, which it is hoped can address the blasphemy laws, is work towards more secular, democratic State institutions.  The campaign for the restoration of a Joint Electorate is the strategic focus of this effort at present.

2.     Separate Electorate System


The Separate Electorate system was imposed by General Zia-Ul-Haq through Presidential Order No 14 in 1985, which amended Articles 51 and 106 of the Constitution of Pakistan.  These changes were part of the Eighth Constitutional Amendment, which was later approved by Parliament.  These amendments created separate electorates for minorities on the basis of religion.

Under this system members of religious minorities, such as Christians, can neither vote for Muslim candidates nor can they stand as candidates in Muslim electorates.  There are separate electorates on the basis of religion. Muslim voters can only vote for Muslim candidates while non-Muslim voters can only vote for non-Muslim candidates contesting seats reserved for their religious group.  The Constitution provides that 207 seats in the National Assembly (lower house) are reserved for Muslims and 10 seats are provided for religious minorities (4 for Hindus, 4 for Christians, 1 for Ahmadies, and 1 for Parees and other religions).

The system of Separate Electorates appears to violate Article 25 of the Constitution of Pakistan which guarantees the equality of citizens under the law.  It is also contrary to the vision of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, founder of the nation, expressed in his inaugural speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 August 1947:

“You may belong to any religion, caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.  Now, I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of Pakistan.”

Impact of the Separate Electorates System

The system of Separate Electorates is considered by Church, community and human rights groups and by international observers to violate the norms and principles of democratic discourse and standards of universal adult franchise.

The system of Separate Electorates creates and reinforces divisions among the citizens of Pakistan encouraging religious bigotry and restricting the voting choices of all citizens, Muslims and members of religious minorities alike.

By restricting the number of seats that can be occupied by members of minority groups, the system prevents citizens from minority groups from having effective access to the Parliament.  Minority groups are virtually unable to significantly influence the legislative process and consequently discriminatory legislation has flourished. Until there is effective political representation, the Parliament will not be a vehicle for protecting and promoting the rights of minorities.

Religious extremists have been able to introduce Shariat law into the law of the land applicable to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.  The Hudood and Zina Ordinance, the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance, the law of evidence and the blasphemy laws are important examples.

The system of Separate Electorates is seen by minority groups as a form or religious apartheid that deprives minorities of their civil and political rights. Because the whole of Pakistan is a constituency for each of the ten seats reserved for minorities in the National Assembly, and similarly the whole province is the constituency for each of the 23 seats in the Provincial Assemblies in the four Provinces, every minority candidate becomes a political rival of the others and the minority representatives are never able to unite, even on key issues for their communities.

Responses to the Separate Electorates System

In 1993 the National Commission for Justice and Peace called on the religious minorities to participate in the General Election under protest.  This action was sufficiently effective to receive recognition by the electoral commentator Mr Irshad Ahmed Haqani while reading the election results on Pakistan Television.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of Pakistan, the Bishops of the Church of Pakistan, and other civil society actors have expressed their concerns and demanded the restoration of a joint electorate at various forums and in correspondence to the authorities.  In a joint statement on September 1993 the heads of the Catholic Church, Church of Pakistan, United Presbyterians and the Salvation Army demanded the restoration of a Joint Electorate.

More recently on 22 October 2000, Archbishop Armando Trinidade (RIP), Archbishop of Lahore and President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Pakistan, and Bishop Samuel Azariah, Bishop of Raiwind and Moderator of the Church of Pakistan wrote to the Chief Executive reiterating the demand for a Joint Electorate.

In October 2000 a series of ‘token hunger strikes’ demanding a joint electorate were initiated by civil society actors including the Commission and other Church bodies.

A Joint Action Committee has been set up linking a wide range of civil society actors in a coordinated campaign for a boycott of the Local Bodies Elections as a protest against the Separate Electorates System under which these elections were being held in 2001.

Conscientisation and awareness raising was undertaken at the village level and candidates were asked to withdraw.  Action in the first and second stages of the Local Bodies elections produced a noticeable impact with a number of seats being vacant or won uncontested and voter turnout low.

To date the Blasphemy Laws have not been repealed, nor has the Joint Electorate been restored.

295C is the greatest block in the good relations between Muslims and the religious minorities in Pakistan.  In order to achieve national harmony, let us give a mighty push to this immense boulder, before it crushes all of us.  Once this obstacle is away, each Pakistani will be able to live and work in peace and our beloved Motherland, Pakistan will prosper.  Let us pray continuously for it, publicly and in private, throughout the country.  Amen.

Bishop John Joseph (RIP) of Faisalabad, 5 May 1998

3. The Blasphemy Case Against Ayub Masih


The Multan Bench of Lahore High Court comprising Justice Khawaja Muhammad Sharif and Justice Naeem Ullah Khan Sherani rejected on July 24, 2001, the appeal of the accused and upheld the death sentence against Ayub Masih, a Christian in a blasphemy case. Ayub Masih of Arifwala, District Sahiwal (Southern Punjab, 700 km from the capital Islamabad) was arrested on October 14, 1996 on the charge of making derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). He was sentenced to death and fined 100,000 Rupees on April 27, 1998 by Sahiwal Session’s Court under section 295-C (Blasphemy Law) of the Pakistan Penal Code.  Section 295C carries a mandatory death sentence.

This case became internationally known when Bishop John Joseph, Catholic Bishop of Faisalabad, offered himself in sacrifice on May 6, 1998 near the court at Sahiwal as a protest against this verdict.

Extremists & the Rule of Law

The case against Ayub Masih was instituted, prosecuted and decided on without real evidence. The case was registered without investigation merely on a statement by the complainant Muhammad Akram.

Ayub Masih pleaded not guilty, and claimed that the case was fabricated by Muhammad Akram, a Muslim, to deprive Ayub’s and thirteen other Christian families, of their residential plots in the village. In fact, the whole Christian populace of the village (forteen families), were forced to leave their homes and belongings, the very day the case was registered. The house belonging to Ayub’s family was allotted to the complainant by the authorities.

On the day of this verdict the extremists present in the vicinity of the court threatened Ayub’s lawyer with dire consequences for pursuing the case. As the court reserved the verdict, the fundamentalist youth shouted that if the court released the accused, they would not spare him and his lawyers. The lawyer of Ayub Masih registered a complaint with local police. The people gathered outside the court also tried to snatch files which the lawyers were holding.

This case has been a painful story of efforts by religious extremists aimed at diverting the process of law and justice:

  • The case was first shifted from Arifwala to Sahiwal because it was feared that the legal process was being jeopardized by outside interventions.
  • Ayub Masih was fired upon by the complainant himself while present in the corridors of Court at Sahiwal on November 6, 1997. The trial thereafter was held in camera  in recognition of the danger but Ayub’s complaint regarding the shooting was not lodged.
  • Ayub’s application for medical treatment in the court in April 1999 was turned down by the High Court Multan Bench. Another application for an early hearing of the case was filed on December 12, 1999.
  • In the absence of circumstantial and substantive evidence, the case deserved to be quashed on hearing but it remained unattended for more than three years in the High Court while Ayub languished in jail for about five years. The court’s upholding, after a short trial, of the death sentence against Ayub Masih is denial of justice.
  • The appeal by Ayub Masih remained pending without any hearing for  more than three years in the High Court. The case did not receive a proper hearing and was conducted only on July 24, 2001 wherein the punishment was upheld.
  • On the day of the hearing the courtyard of Multan Bench of the Lahore High Court was occupied by extremists, who threatened the court and the lawyers of Ayub Masih, (also reported by the newspaper, Nawa-e-Waqt Multan July 26, 2001). Sajjad Haider Zaidi, Advocate pleaded the case on behalf of Ayub Masih. He lodged a formal complaint about the incident with the local police.

This is the first time since the Blasphemy Laws were introduced that a Bench of the High Court has confirmed the death sentence. The previous history of blasphemy cases is that the death sentence for blasphemy under 295-C has been awarded by Session’s Courts. The current verdict appears to be the result of extremist pressure. However sad reminders such as the murder of Justice (R) Arif Iqbal Bhatti (October 10, 1997), who acquitted two people accussed of blasphemy (Salamat and Rehmat) also creates a sense of fear in the minds of Judges.

4. The Blasphemy Case Against Dr Younas Shaikh


Dr Younas Shaikh, a Muslim, has been detained since October 2000 charged under the Blasphemy Laws.  On 18 August 2001, a Additional Sessions Judge, Islamabad, Mr Safdar Hussain Malik sentenced Dr Shaikh to death and imposed a fine equivalent to $1,500 US.

Dr Shaikh was sentenced to death for blasphemy for historical remarks about the Prophet Mohammed he is claimed to have made in the course of his work teaching physiology in a medical college.

Malicious Use of Laws

Dr Younas Shaikh is a peace activitist and founder of Enlightenment, a progressive Pakistan-based organisation that is a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

The blasphemy charges against him are based on a claim that, during a lecture, he said that neither the Prophet nor his parents could logically have been Muslims before Islam was revealed to the Prophet.

The complaint against him was lodged by leaders of the Majlis Tahaffuz-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwat (Committee for the Finality of the Prophethood), which is a conservative organisation that is said to have harassed and attacked non-orthodox Muslims in the past.  None of the complainants were eyewitnesses to the alleged offence.

A group of eminent fundamentalist clergy were a prominent pressence throughout the open court trial, intimidating the judge and defence.

5. Solidarity Action

The ACSJC is opposed to the use of the death penalty in any country because:

  • The death penalty is an offence against the dignity and sanctity of all human life, which must be respected even in those who have done great evil. Every human being has the right to life.
  • The use of the death penalty undermines a society’s respect for life and contributes to a culture of vengeance and death.
  • The use of the death penalty is incompatible with the message and practice of Jesus Christ who preached forgiveness rather than upholding the law of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.
  • The death penalty is cruel and unnecessary. All societies now have other ways of protecting themselves from violent criminals.
  • The death penalty denies those who have committed crimes the chance to repent and reform.
  • The death penalty does not appear to have reduced crime rates in those States where it is applied.
  • It is illogical and ineffective to oppose killing by means of State killings.
  • No criminal justice system is infallible and there is always the danger that the innocent may be put to death.
  • In many countries the death penalty is applied in a way that discriminates against the poor, marginalized, disadvantaged and members of minority ethnic groups.

The ASCJC is asking for the decision to apply the death penalty in these cases to be reviewed. We are concerned at the lack of evidence, and that significant pressure has been applied by extremist elements in the community to the whole legal process. Given the level of threats and violent action already taken in relation to these cases, it is difficult to see how the process of justice could have escaped distortion.

Further, the ACSJC is asking for the Blasphemy Laws to be repealed. These laws appear to be readily open to abuse. The UN Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance has criticized the vagueness of the wording of these laws, procedural aspects of the laws and the ‘disproportionate and even unacceptable’ authorization of the death penalty.  We believe that communal harmony and the international reputation of Pakistan would be enhanced by the repeal of these laws, which are too easily misused.

1. Please write letters to the High Commissioner for Pakistan, and to the President of the Republic of Pakistan showing your concern over the death sentence against Ayub Masih and Dr Younas Shaikh under the Blasphemy Laws. Please request that the authorities:

  • review the death sentence in the cases of Ayub Masih & Dr Younas Shaikh
  • and to work towards the repeal of the Blasphemy Laws.

2.    Please write to the UN Special Rapporteur on Relgious Intolerance about the cases of Ayub Masih and Dr Younas Shaikh, and request that the Rapporteur make a follow up visit to Pakistan.

3.    Please pray for peace and religious harmony in Pakistan and for Ayub Masih, Dr Younas Shaikh and their families.