The use of Pakistan’s laws against blasphemy – which carry the death sentence – to prosecute a Christian youth who reportedly has Down syndrome is so grotesque as to almost defy belief.
Authorities were prompted to arrest the girl, who by some accounts is as young as 11 years old, after hundreds of neighbours gathered outside her family’s home in an impoverished Christian neighbourhood in Islamabad. They were angry that she had allegedly burned a learning guide to the Koran, which contains excerpts of the Islamic scriptures, for cooking fuel. The girl remains in jail, where she is so traumatized that she will not speak to visitors.
It is moderately encouraging that President Asif Ali Zardari has ordered his interior ministry to investigate the circumstances of the girl’s arrest. Mr. Zardari should go further by heeding calls to reform the laws that make it an offence to defile the Koran – even for those who do so unintentionally.
Of course, it is politically difficult for the government to repeal these criminal sanctions, which were introduced by the British in the 1860s, and then expanded under the military government of General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. Despite the controversy, the laws have a high level of public support. Last year, two prominent politicians who criticized the blasphemy laws – the governor of Punjab and the federal religious minorities minister – were killed.
But this case has laid plain the need for better protections for religious minorities, as well as a recognition by authorities that the blasphemy law is open to abuse, and can be used to harass people or to pursue petty rivalries.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has rightly called the incident “preposterous and barbaric,” while Pakistan’s Minister of National Harmony told the BBC that it “seemed unlikely the girl purposefully desecrated the Koran.”
Many cases of blasphemy are in fact thrown out on appeal by higher courts due to faulty evidence or a lack of due process, according to a study by the Human Rights Commission. Christians and Ahmadi Muslims are often targeted.
Such arbitrary application of an imperfect law is deeply troubling. Police and prosecutors should not be swayed by angry calls for retribution, but should protect society’s most vulnerable.