EDITORIAL: Blasphemy law strikes again
The Additional District and Sessions judge, Peshawar, Mr Sardar Irshad, has sentenced Mr Munawwar Mohsin, a mentally ill sub-editor of the daily “The Frontier Post”, to life imprisonment and a fine of Rs 50,000 for committing “blasphemy”. The facts of this case speak for themselves. On 29 January 2001, a letter sent by a foreigner via e-mail was inadvertently published in the letters column of “The Frontier Post”. The paper was in financial crisis and was hard put to find good English-language journalists in Peshawar. Sub-editor Munawwar Mohsin, who was on duty on the night when the letter landed, did not comprehend the content of the letter and allowed it to be cut-and-pasted into the letters column. There was an uproar in the city upon the publication of the said letter, during which the “The Frontier Post” office was gutted and a cinema house put on fire. A judicial inquiry into the incident by Justice Qaim Jan Khan discovered that journalist Munawwar Mohsin was a drug addict who had just days earlier run away from the city’s mental hospital. The doctor there had informed the newspaper about it and then told the inquiry judge that the boy was mentally ill. The judicial inquiry therefore found him of unsound mind. But the sessions judge who sentenced Munawwar Mohsin to life imprisonment Tuesday decided that he was of sound mind. He thought in his wisdom that it was enough that the prosecution had not pursued the “diminished liability” line for him to dispense with professional medical opinion and pass the sentence.
This is distressing. Judge Irshad is simply reacting to the “revolutionary” Islamic MMA regime of Mr Akram Durrani in the NWFP and nailing his own true colours to the mast. After coming to power, the MMA regime announced that, among other things, it would pursue accelerated prosecution of blasphemy cases and even wrote to the federal government to direct its attention to this matter with seriousness. In fact, when a false case of blasphemy was brought against a teacher in Lahore by a vested interest bent on victimising him, the Peshawar assembly especially discussed the issue and asked the government to expedite the prosecution. The upshot was that the said teacher was let off by the Lahore High Court, but was murdered outside the court by some unknown “pious” Muslims. But Judge Irshad of Peshawar is not the only sessions judge who has sought paradise through a judgment such as this one. In August 2000, a Lahore sessions judge (incidentally, a relative of General Zia) convicted one Yusuf Ali of blasphemy and sentenced him to death. But the judgement was so badly written that the convicted person was sure he would get off on appeal. However, to make sure that he was dispatched, a fellow-prisoner shot him to death when he was being taken out of his death-cell. Needless to say, the murderer was connected to a religious militia. At the high tide of jihad in the early 1900s, a retired judge of the Lahore High Court was killed in his office by a fanatic who thought he had wrongly bailed out a 14-year-old boy accused of blasphemy in Gujranwala.
The internationally abominated blasphemy law in Pakistan has, in one case after another, been exposed by judges who are either too scared to stand up to extremist religious elements or overly keen to prove their “pious credentials”. Meanwhile, human rights organisations and minorities’ forums have ceaselessly condemned a law that gives a handle to the fanatics among us to vent their extremism as a legal norm. The law was duly politicised after it was criticised for the sweeping ambit of its wording. The extent of this politicisation can be gauged from the fact that on one occasion a judge of the Lahore High Court actually went public with the statement that blasphemers should be killed by the people in the streets instead of being brought before the court.
That the law on blasphemy is defective has been noted by everyone, including such prestigious retired judges of the higher judiciary as Justice Javed Iqbal of the Supreme Court of Pakistan who has mentioned it in his memoirs. The honourable Supreme Court this year allowed poor Ayub Masih to walk free after four years in the death-cell. He was convicted by a sessions judge of Faisalabad, but so tendentious was his judgement that Bishop John Jacob of the Faisalabad diocese committed suicide in front of the courthouse to put the world on notice. The European Parliament thereafter passed a resolution against the blasphemy law and the United States has a law pending on the statute book specifically monitoring prosecution under the blasphemy law and enabling Congress to stop all aid to offending states. General Musharraf was so conscious of the evil of this law that he sought to strike it off the books in 2000, but was deterred by his secret agencies who feared that the Jama’at-e Islami would make political capital out of it.
This controversial judgment also comes at a time when General Musharraf’s Pakistan in general and the MMA’s NWFP in particular are under the scrutiny of the international community. It will reinforce all the negative perceptions of Pakistan and erode the good work that General Musharraf has done to try and rectify Pakistan’s image abroad. How unfortunate. Where is the honourable Attorney General of Pakistan, who is a member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan? Why isn’t he doing something to stop this madness from enveloping us all? Poor Munawwar Mohsin. We hope he will soon be acquitted by the High Court on appeal and sent back to the hospital for the cure he deserves as a human being. *