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Pakistan: Appeasing extremists over blasphemy laws ’will have blow-back effect’.

Saturday 7 December 2013, by siawi3


Pakistan MP Sherry Rehman drops effort to reform blasphemy laws
Sherry Rehman accuses her own ruling party of appeasing extremists after PM throws out amendment bill

Declan Walsh in Islamabad
The Guardian, Thursday 3 February 2011 16.21 GMT

Sherry Rehman, a liberal Pakistani MP, says appeasing extremists over blasphemy laws ’will have blow-back effect’. Photograph: Declan Walsh for the Guardian

A Pakistani MP spearheading reform of the country’s controversial blasphemy laws has abandoned her struggle, accusing her own party of caving in to extremists.

However, Pakistan People’s Party MP Sherry Rehman, who is largely confined to her home following a flurry of death threats, denied government claims that she had voluntarily withdrawn a bill proposing changes to the law.

“There was no question of my withdrawing the bill as the speaker [of parliament] never admitted it on the agenda,” she said, adding that the “appeasement of extremists will have a blow-back effect”.

Under pressure from religious clerics, prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told parliament on Wednesday that his government would not touch the legislation, which human rights groups say is routinely abused to persecute minorities and settle personal scores. “We are all unanimous that nobody wants to change the law,” he said.

The controversy erupted last November when Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the prophet Muhammad. The issue became a national crisis on 4 January after the Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer was gunned down by his own guard outside a Islamabad coffee shop. The assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, said he killed Taseer because Taseer wanted to reform the law.

Since then Pakistan’s religious right has capitalised on the issue, whipping up public sentiment through massive street rallies and out-manoeuvring the secular parties, all of which have reneged on promises to seek reform.

Although cases against Christians get much of the attention, the bulk of the law’s victims are Muslim. This week Human Rights Watch called for the release of a 17-year-old student, Muhammad Samiullah, who was charged with blasphemy on 28 January after allegedly writing blasphemous remarks on an exam paper. He is being held in a juvenile prison awaiting trial. The complaint was filed by a senior official on Samiullah’s local education board.

“Sending a schoolboy to jail for something he scribbled on an exam paper is truly appalling,” said Bede Sheppard of Human Rights Watch.

Reformers stress they do not wish to scrap the blasphemy law – a political impossibility in the current climate — but merely seek reforms to make abuse more difficult. “The procedural amendments I sought would have given relief to innocent people, that’s all,” said Rehman, a former information minister. “Instead it has become the object of a power play between parties.”

The ruling PPP “politically blundered the issue”, said Nasim Zehra, a television presenter who has hosted several debates on the issue. “Nearly everyone agrees that misuse of the law has to end. But the PPP have ended up distancing themselves from the one person who brought in a solution.”

After ruling out reforms Gilani invited religious leaders to “come and tell us how to prevent misuse” of the law.

The controversy has left Rehman estranged from her party and exposed to prosecution. Rightwing opponents in Lahore and Multan are attempting to have her tried for blasphemy in two separate cases. Allies are advising her to withdraw from the limelight for a while. “She needs to disappear for three months, and then we’ll see. This game is also about staying alive,” said one human rights worker.

Critics say the PPP has also abandoned the memory of Taseer, a staunch loyalist, by failing to offer prayers for him in either house of parliament, as is the tradition for deceased politicians.