The accuser becomes the accused – but no one wins

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are all too often exploited for a personal grudge. That is something Amnesty has been concerned about for a long time.

The most recent high-profile blasphemy case illustrates the inherent problems with the laws. In case you don’t know:

Two weeks ago, a young girl, Ramsha Masih (who is around 14 years old, though her age has been a matter of contention from the start) who has learning difficulties which apparently mean she has an even lower mental age, was accused of blasphemy. She is a Christian and it is alleged that she burnt pages of the Koran.

Apparently her neighbour found her, and took the girl and the pages to the local cleric, the Imam. The Imam then took the girl and the pages to the police accusing her of desecrating a holy book- blasphemy. Last week Ramsha was denied bail and remanded in custody.

However, at the weekend, the cleric was himself accused of blasphemy. His assistant alleges that the Imam added pages of the Koran to the burnt book pages brought to him with the girl. It is alleged that he planted the pages, so that the girl would be accused and all Christians would leave that area of Pakistan. He has now been shackled and taken to prison where he too is being remanded in custody, ironically in the same prison as Ramsha.

At first it might seem that this man has got his comeuppance, his just deserts. But this isn’t an Aesop’s fable and there isn’t a happy ending. It may be that his arrest might prevent other people from accusing others of blasphemy falsely for the purpose of a grudge, but the Imam might now face the death penalty. Ramsha is still in prison and there are reports that she has been severely traumatised by the entire affair. Her family have warned that they fear for her life if she is released.

This is neither the beginning, nor the end of the tragedy of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan.

Back in January 2011 Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was killed by one of his security guards after criticising the laws, and campaigning for a Christian woman who was herself sentenced to death for blasphemy. It is a sorry state of affairs with the law being exploited for personal ends and to further malicious vendettas - creating a cycle of accusation and retaliation.

The government of Pakistan must ensure Ramsha, her family and Islamabad’s Christian community, are protected against intimidation and attacks. They must also urgently reform the country’s dangerous blasphemy laws and end the cycle of accusation.

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