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Activists Worry Pakistan's Blasphemy Law Is Being Abused

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People in Pakistan are accustomed to being cautious about what they say. Islamist extremists tend to kill people whose views upset them. People have to watch out for the country's intelligence agencies, too, and there's one subject Pakistanis are especially careful about - the country's blasphemy laws are highly sensitive. Pakistani activists worry these laws are being abused, but even criticizing the laws can be fatal. From the city of Lahore, NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Lahore's High Court has seen many dramatic cases since it was established under British colonial rule nearly a century ago. Today there's a buzz in the air, black cloud lawyers huddle in conversation within the neo-Gothic cloisters, clerks sit beneath whirring fans, hammering out affidavits on ancient typewriters. A hearing is about to begin involving Asia Bibi. She's the first woman in Pakistan to be sentenced to death for blasphemy. This is the sixth time her appeal has come before a court. It keeps getting adjourned. Bibi was convicted in 2010. Joseph Francis leads an organization that's campaigning for Bibi's conviction to be overturned. He says the delays are very tough on her.

JOSEPH FRANCIS: Very difficult because she's suffering in the four years.

REEVES: Bibi is a Christian in a nation where more than 9 out of 10 are Muslims. She wound up on death row after an argument with some Muslim coworkers at a fruit farm. Her coworkers alleged she had spoken blasphemously of the prophet Mohammed. Under Pakistani law that's a capital offense. Asia Bibi's conviction caused alarm around the world, so did the events that followed. In 2011 the governor of Pakistan's most populous province, Punjab, was assassinated. Two months later Pakistan's minorities minister, a Roman Catholic, was also shot dead. Both men spoke out in support of Bibi and against Pakistan's blasphemy laws. On Lahore's streets Pakistani Christians are out demonstrating. They're calling for minority rights to be upheld. The crowd includes Chaman Masih.

CHAMAN MASIH: (Through translator) My son was arrested unjustifiably and is completely innocent.

REEVES: Masih's son, Savan, is also on death row. A Muslim neighbor accused Savan of insulting the prophet during an argument. This is Savan's neighborhood - a tumbledown Christian enclave in Lahore. When word of the blasphemy accusation got around this enclave was attacked and torched by a mob. Christians here suspect a conspiracy by a Muslim business mafia to drive them out and grab their land. One resident, Inayat Masih, says they now live in fear.

INAYAT MASIH: (Through translator) We feel insecure and we are afraid of talking openly, lest our talks could be misinterpreted, and we could be accused of anything.

REEVES: Blasphemy laws were introduced in the subcontinent during the 19th century by British colonial rulers. The aim was to damp down sectarian conflicts in what was then a land of many faith, offenders could be jailed for several years. The law was amended in the 1980s by Pakistan's Islamist, military dictator, General Zia Ul-Haq. The change meant that defiling the name of the prophet could trigger the death penalty - a punishment the later became mandatory. The accused can be arrested without any substantial evidence; there's no bail; there's no punishment for deliberately making a false allegation. Human rights organizations say that more and more the laws being used to settle vendettas and target minorities.

SHAZIA SHAHEEN: You know, people have now learned this law can be misused against anybody.

REEVES: Human rights activist Shazia Shaheen thinks the law should be scrapped.

SHAHEEN: I think at a personal level it should be totally repealed - no sense of it.

REEVES: So no blasphemy law at all?

SHAHEEN: No, I mean, you know, this is against the freedom of speech.

REEVES: Repealing the blasphemy law isn't at all easy, though. Pakistan's politicians are reluctant to get involved because they fear being targeted by Islamist extremists.

FRANCIS: (Through translator) There's no chance politician even did not want to talk about it.

REEVES: That's Joseph Francis, the man campaigning on Asia Bibi's behalf. He and his organization, the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement, regularly receive threats from militants. Francis battles on despite these.

FRANCIS: (Through translator) Unless you struggle you cannot get justice. So we have to struggle; we have to fight to get justice.

REEVES: Another big barrier to change is public opinion.

MUFTI MOHAMMAD KHATEEB MUSTAFAEE: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Most Pakistanis are devout Muslims who believe blasphemy should be severely punished, explains Islamic Sunni cleric Mufti Mohammad Khateeb Mustafaee. So far Pakistan has not executed anyone convicted of blasphemy, but Mustafaee strongly supports the death penalty.

MUSTAFAEE: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: However, he says, every case should be thoroughly investigated to protect people from baseless allegations. Mustafaee speaks from first-hand experience. He says a Shiite rival is accusing him of blasphemy. Muslims are also sometimes victims of the abuse of the blasphemy law. Take for example the case of Junaid Hafeez. Junaid is a Fulbright Scholar who taught English at a university in the city of Multan. He was jailed last year after hard-line Islamists accused him of posting blasphemous material on Facebook. Junaid's father, Hafeez un Naseer, says the Islamists invented these accusations to stop his son getting a university position. They want the job to go to their own Islamist candidate. As Junaid sits in jail awaiting trial his family's in despair, says his father, Naseer.

HAFEEZ UN NASEER: (Through translator) My business has collapsed. My own close relatives have deserted me. They avoid meeting us, so we are in a way ruined.

REEVES: It took Naseer months to find an attorney for his son. Eventually a prominent lawyer, Rashed Rehman from Pakistan's Human Rights Commission, agreed. In May, Rehman was shot dead. Naseer broke the news to his son in jail.

NASEER: (Through translator) When I told him he burst into tears, asking me, Abu, my father what will happen to us now? And I told him, God will protect us.

REEVES: Rashed Rehman's murder was a huge blow to Pakistanis who are campaigning for reform, says rights activist Shazia Shaheen.

SHAHEEN: People are now less vocal on this issue. We are in a kind of hopeless state.

REEVES: Back in Lehore's High Court, Asia Bibi's lawyers sit outside drinking tea. There's been a setback; an attorney didn't show up so her case was adjourned yet again. Bibi must remain for now on death row. This is a disappointment to Joseph Francis, the man leading the campaign on her behalf. Yet he refuses to lose heart.

You never give up hope after all these delays?

FRANCIS: No, no, no.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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