Pakistan to reform Islamic blasphemy law - senator

Paris, France - A senior Pakistani official said on Tuesday that Islamabad planned to reform its blasphemy law that Christian churches and human rights groups say the Muslim majority uses to oppress religious minorities.

Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed said the law, which allows up to the death penalty for insulting Islam, would be changed after a general election due late this year or early next year.

President General Pervez Musharraf tried to reform the law in 2000, months after he took power in a bloodless coup, but had to drop that plan after widespread protests from Pakistan's powerful Islamic religious parties.

After detailing at a Paris academic conference steps taken to improve conditions for religious minorities, the senator was asked when Islamabad would reform the blasphemy law.

"Inshallah (God willing), after the election," said Hussain, secretary general of the governing Pakistan Muslim League party and chairman of the Pakistan Senate's foreign affairs committee.

"We don't want to hand another election issue to our 'friends'," he said, referring to the opposition Islamic parties. He did not detail how the law would be changed.

The religious parties fiercely opposed a reform passed last November that curbed the scope of Islamic laws which had made it impossible for women to accuse men of raping them.

That reform removed rape from the religious laws introduced by General Zia ul-Haq in 1979 in his drive to impose Islamic law and made it a civil crime.

A blasphemy law left over from the British colonial period was sharpened in 1980 to cover a wide array of possible insults to Islam and its maximum penalty was boosted to death in 1982.

Christians, less than three percent of the overwhelmingly Muslim population of 150 million, have long complained about the law because it gives no protection to a minority member accused by a Muslim of violations such as tearing a page of the Koran.

Many accusations are levelled to settle scores between feuding neighbours, they say. The accused have little hope of defending themselves because the charge of blasphemy brought by a Muslim usually serves as sufficient evidence for the crime.

In recent years, Christians have been sentenced to death for allegedly scattering garbage near a mosque or speaking well of British author Salman Rushdie, who was ordered killed by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 for his satirical book The Satanic Verses.

No death penalty has ever been carried out, since higher courts usually overturn them on appeal. The Lahore High Court last week freed a mentally ill Christian who had been sentenced to 25 years in jail, the Catholic AsiaNews agency reported.