Pak parliament rejects changing blasphemy laws

Islamabad, Pakistan - The Pakistani parliament yesterday crushed moves to amend blasphemy laws that prescribe harsh punishments, including the death penalty, for insults to the Prophet Muhammad.

“This is the parliament of not a secular but an Islamic state. No one can dare to present a bill here which hurts the sentiments of Muslims,” Federal Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Sher Afgan said.

A Christian member of the lower house had suggested a motion to tone down the legislation, which authorities in recent years indicated could be reviewed under President Pervez Musharraf’s policies of “enlightened moderation.” The motion was rejected by opposition lawmakers as well as the ruling Pakistani Muslim League (PML), while members of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Ammal (MMA) Islamic religious alliance thumped their desks in applause at its dismissal.

The penal code of Pakistan sanctions the death penalty or life imprisonment for anyone found guilty of making derogatory remarks about the prophet.

Human rights groups have criticised the blasphemy laws because of proven cases where they have been misused by Muslim fundamentalists to persecute religious minorities. Ordinary citizens have also publicly accused rivals of blasphemy in order to settle personal scores.

The author of the proposal, Minno Bhandara, said he had only sought equal penalties for offenders of any religion. “Under the Pakistani constitution every citizen is equal, irrespective of religion,” he said.

“Therefore, prophets and sacred books of minorities should be protected in the same way as those of Muslims,” he added.