Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Religious Freedom and Religious Persecution: Pakistan's blasphemy laws

The International Human Rights Committee of the American Bar Association’s Section of International Law is presenting a timely CLE brownbag teleconference on the topic of “Religious Freedom and Religious Persecution.”

Join prominent Human Rights Lawyer and President of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association, Ms. Asma Jahangir and a panel of other distinguished speakers as they address current controversies around the globe. Ms. Jahangir will be joined by Elizabeth Cassidy of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and Mr. David Matas an international human rights lawyer.

Pakistan’s “blasphemy laws” have been the subject of much recent controversy and are also blamed for two high profile assassinations. Earlier this year, Salman Taseer, the powerful governor of Pakistan’s most populous state of Punjab was gunned down by his own bodyguard for his pursuit of amendments to the laws. Recently a Christian, Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister for minority affairs was gunned down by religious extremists, allegedly for his views on the blasphemy laws.

It is not clear how far Pakistani politicians are willing to go in order to prevent misuse of the blasphemy laws, which carry the death penalty for those convicted of insulting the Prophet Mohammad. Some argue that it would be enough to ensure that the cases of those accused of blasphemy be heard by higher courts better qualified to interpret the laws fairly and less likely to be swayed by the mob pressure which can be used to get convictions in lower courts.

Others argue that the actual wording of the laws needs to be amended if they are to be fairly applied. The original blasphemy law, introduced in British India in 1860, imposed a prison term of up to two years for any damage to a place of worship or sacred object carried out “with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to their religion…”

The current provision in the Pakistan Penal Code, as amended in 1986, both introduces the death penalty for insulting the Prophet, and drops the concept of intent. According to Section 295-C of the Penal Code, “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to fine.”

This omission of the need to prove malicious intent has opened the door to some of the more absurd accusations of blasphemy, many of which are made against Muslims — like a student accused of blaspheming in an answer on an exam paper, or a doctor who threw out a business card from a salesman named Mohammed. It is unclear whether the misuse of the laws can be stopped without the reinsertion of the notion of intent in some form. Whether Pakistan and other parts of the world will be able to achieve a resolution to the situation remains to be seen.

Join our teleconference for a discussion of the blasphemy laws and other topics such as the treatment of Falun Gong in China, the Koran burning in the USA and other incidents that are worthy of the attention of the international human rights committee.

Please click on the link above for event details.

Event Details:

ABA Section of International Law, International Human Rights Committee
Co-sponsored by ABA SIL NGO and Not-for-Profit Organizations Committee
With the Support of the Washington State Bar Association Civil Rights Law Section
Thursday, April 14, 2011, 11:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. EDT

There are reports from all over the world of abusive and murderous actions taken against individuals because of their religious beliefs. From Koran burning in the United States to blasphemy laws in Pakistan to persecution of the Falun Gong in China, there is evidence of religious persecution globally. While the religious persecution may vary in form or location, all these incidents raise a common concern about human rights established under international conventions. In this CLE, we will discuss the legal framework behind the right to freedom of religion as a human right; the legal issues that are raised by religious persecution; and the legal recourse available to those who experience religious persecution in the context of both international and domestic law.

Participants will gain an:

  1. Awareness of current concerns and incidents of religious persecution globally
  2. Understanding of human rights related to religious freedom under existing international law and conventions
  3. Awareness and better understanding of legal issues related to specific incidents of religious persecution
  4. Understanding of legal recourse available to victims of religious persecution under international law
Elizabeth K. Cassidy
Deputy Director for Policy and Research,U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)
Washington, DC

Asma Jahangir
President, Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan; Director, AGHS Legal Aid Cell
Lahore, Pakistan

David Matas
International Human Rights Lawyer; Co-Author, "Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for Their Organs"
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada


Mohammad A. Syed
Senior Attorney in the Antitrust Section of King & Ballow Law Offices
Nashville, Tennessee
If you have any questions, call ABA International at 202-662-1660 or e-mail us at intlaw@americanbar.org

Section Members, NGO Lawyers, Academic Lawyers $45
Non-Section Lawyers $75
Young Lawyers $15
Law Students (no CLE credit) Free
Other Listeners (no CLE credit) Free

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