In Pakistan, it is illegal to make derogatory comments about Prophet Muhammad or desecrate the Quran.
Anyone accused is usually arrested and jailed, sometimes for years, before their case is overturned or sentence reduced by the appeal courts.
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Such is the strength of feeling about blasphemy that the mere rumour of an allegation is enough to set the neighbourhood or village against the accused, increasingly with fatal consequences. In some instances, it is not just the accused, but their entire community who are held responsible and threatened.
On wasteland on the outskirts of Islamabad we meet families who have fled their homes in the city’s Mehrabadi district.
Despite the winter cold, they live in makeshift tents because they are too scared to return to Mehrabadi, after a member of their Christian community, 14-year-old Rimsha Masih, was accused of blasphemy last year.
Fifty two of the accused and their supporters have been murdered in the last two decades. Even in police custody blasphemy suspects are not safe.
In December 2012, an angry mob broke into a police station in Sindh province and beat a blasphemy suspect to death. He had been accused of burning pages of the Quran.
In Ahmedpur East in July 2012, a man accused of throwing pages of the Quran on the street was dragged by crowds from a police cell and killed, after being pulled through the streets behind a motorbike.
This sensitivity and climate of fear, combined with the inability of the criminal justice system to identify false allegations early, means the law is open to abuse. We hear how blasphemy allegations have become powerful weapons in settling personal scores.
Lawyer Joseph Francis runs the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) in Lahore, one of the few existing groups that help people accused of blasphemy.
In a safe house he introduces us to Ruqqiya, who says her neighbours accused her of blasphemy after her daughter got into an argument with the neighbour’s child. Ruqqiya spent three years in jail before being acquitted. Her young children hardly knew her when she was released. Despite the acquittal, Ruqqiya says extremists are still searching for her and she fears for the family’s safety.
Nawab Bhatti and her sisters-in-law have also been terrified since Nawab’s husband Zafar was accused of blasphemy and imprisoned awaiting trial, more than six months ago. His health in prison is deteriorating. They say the allegation was made by a rival party in a property dispute and used to get Zafar out of the way.
Human rights activist Xavier William runs a crisis group in Islamabad and helped arrange safe accommodation for Michael and his family after they were forced to flee their home. Michael says he was accused of burning the Quran by a former boss, after he left his employer and started a rival business. Michael and his family now hide in the compound in fear of attack, and wish to flee Pakistan.
Others, like Lahore-based journalist Shehrbano Taseer, refuse to leave the country despite the threats and the loss of loved ones.
"When it is being so grossly misused it is definitely time to rethink and revisit this law. The stories are chilling, they put cases on minors and mentally handicapped people,” she say.
Shehrbano’s father Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was assassinated after showing support for Asia Bibi, a mother of five facing blasphemy charges. He campaigned to reform the laws. Inspired by clerics condemning Taseer, his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri, shot him dead.
The convicted murderer was showered with rose petals and praise on his way to court.
Rao Abdur Raheem worked pro-bono to defend Qadri and said the bodyguard had no option but to take the law into his own hands and kill an enemy of the Holy Prophet.
As Pakistan gears up for elections later this year, 101 East looks at the devastating impact of blasphemy allegations on the accused, what the use of the laws reveals about growing extremism and what hope there is for reform.
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Source: Al Jazeera