A Muslim school principal in Lahore, Salma Tanveer, has become the latest victim of the dreaded and stringent blasphemy laws of Pakistan, and has been given the death sentence after a long trial, reports the Pakistani daily Dawn.
Salma is not only the principal, but also the owner of a private school in Lahore. She was booked under the Pakistan Penal Code’s Section 295C in September 2013, on a complaint by Qari Iftikhar Raza, a local prayer leader, also referred to as a Khateeb. Raza, in his complaint, alleged that Tanveer had published and distributed pamphlets of her writings in the Lahore area of her residence. In the pamphlets, Salma had allegedly “denied khatam-e-nubuwat” (the finality of Muhammad’s prophethood), had used disparaging remarks, and also “claimed her own nubuwat,” that is, claimed that she herself was a prophet.
Reportedly, the woman’s counsel, Mian Muhammad Ramzan, had emphasized that the magistrate concerned had ordered an examination of the accused: the main argument presented by Tanveer’s advocate was that she was of unsound mental state at the time of the incident, and pleaded with the court not to prosecute her. The defense further argued that the comparison of content from the photocopies of her pamphlets was impossible, alluding to possible alterations in the content of the alleged documents.
The state prosecutors, Sadia Arif and Advocate Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, however, held that Salma’s defense had been unsuccessful in establishing his client’s inability to understand the nature of her actions at the time she wrote, printed and handed out the “blasphemous” material, and claimed before the court that the accusations against Salma has been corroborated with oral and documentary evidence.
The judge observed that a report provided by the Punjab Institute of Mental Health had confirmed that the accused was fit to stand trial. After considering the statements made by the witnesses, the judge sentenced Tanveer to the death penalty, along with a fine of 50,000 Pakistani rupees ($292 US).
“It is proved beyond reasonable doubt that accused Salma Tanveer wrote and distributed the writings which are derogatory in respect of Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and she failed to prove that her case falls in exception provided by section 84 of PPC,” the verdict stated. Section 84, dealing with the accusation on people of unsound mind, states, “nothing is an offense which is done by a person who, at the time of doing it, by reason of unsoundness of mind, is incapable of knowing the nature of the act, or that he is doing what is either wrong or contrary to law.”
“The convict Salma Tanveer is sentenced to death and fined Rs 50,000 u/s 295-C of PPC,” reads the verdict. However, it also held that capital punishment cannot be executed without the Lahore High Court’s confirmation.
Though both India and Pakistan inherited Section 295A that criminalized deliberate attacks on religious sentiments from the British rule in undivided India, Pakistan added 295B and 295C to it during 1980. 295B holds defiling the Qur’an to be punishable by life imprisonment, and Section 295C advocates death penalty for defiling the name of the Prophet of Islam in any way.
Section 295C has a vast capacity for misuse and exploitation, and has been regularly abused to target members of religious minorities, gain the upper hand in personal rivalries, and/or seize land or property. These laws are not dependent on solid witnesses or proof; accusations are more than enough.
In cases of unproven allegations of someone having affronted Islam, a violent and bloodthirsty mob often takes charge of delivering “justice.” Back in 2020, 57-year-old Tahir Ahmad Naseem, an American citizen accused of blasphemy, was shot dead while he was on trial inside a courtroom. That Naseem was shot six times by a 19-year-old young man who had dodged the security system and entered the court to kill the accused even before judgement could be pronounced exposed the extent of jihadist sentiments in Pakistan’s fanatically “religious” society.
Lawyers taking up the cases of the accused have also been attacked and murdered by vigilantes, thereby discouraging advocates from even attempting to defend the suspects of blasphemy. In 2014, Rashid Rehman, a prominent human rights advocate defending a professor accused of blasphemy, was killed in Multan by gunmen posing as prospective clients. As per reports, Saif ul Mulook, the Pakistani lawyer who had helped Asia Bibi in her infamous case of blasphemy, fled Pakistan fearing a murderous attack after several posts on social media called for his execution in 2018.
One cannot rule out the chances of judges being under pressure or threat, and feeling the need to award the death sentence to such suspects just to save themselves from the ire of the jihadi elements they are surrounded with.
According to a 2020 report released by the US Commission for International Religious Freedom, there are 80 convicts charged under the blasphemy law now on death row in Pakistan.