Blasphemy Prosecution of Young Girl Sparks Mob Violence Threat in Pakistan
Washington, D.C. – Days after police arrested Rafta Masih, a young Pakistani girl with Down Syndrome who is accused of blasphemy for allegedly burning pages that had Islamic text and Koranic verses written on them, her Christian neighbors are reportedly fleeing for their safety. Human Rights First notes that the threat of wide-spread mob violence following the girl’s arrest is a stark reminder of the dangers associated with blasphemy laws and the organization calls on Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to take steps to bring calm. “President Asif Ali Zardari’s call for an investigation into Rafta’s case is commendable, but is not enough to squash threats against the girl, her family and her community,” said Human Rights First’s Joelle Fiss. “Pakistan’s leaders must be crystal clear that this case will not be tried on the streets of Pakistan and that mob violence is unacceptable. They also have an obligation to make sure that Rafta has access to representation and that she is protected before, during and after this case is heard before a court of law.” Human Rights First notes that this most recent blasphemy prosecution is one of a long line of arbitrary and troubling cases where those accused face the death penalty for blasphemous acts. In March 2012, Human Rights First published a report documenting more than 100 recent cases from 18 countries that demonstrate the gross abuse of national blasphemy laws. As the report shows, blasphemy laws are frequently used to stifle debate and dissent, harass rivals, and settle petty disputes among neighbors, business partners and political adversaries. Increasingly, these laws also trigger violence. It has become commonplace for mobs to gather in and around courtrooms where blasphemy cases are tried. In many cases, vigilantes are often called to arms over the loudspeakers of local mosques and stand prepared to take the law into their own hands if the court does not hand down a guilty verdict. In Pakistan, discussion of reforming blasphemy laws came to an abrupt halt after the 2011 assassinations of Governor Salmaan Taseer and Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti. Both men were murdered because they spoke out in favor of reforming the laws and against the proposed death sentence of Aasia Bibi, a Christian farm worker and mother of five, convicted of blasphemy following a disagreement with a Muslim co-worker. She has been jailed since November 2010 and remains in solitary confinement to protect her from other prisoners. Earlier this year, Human Rights First submitted recommendations to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for Pakistan’s Universal Periodical Review. The recommendations are designed to prevent human rights abuses that stem from blasphemy laws. Pakistan is scheduled for review at the Human Rights Council on Oct. 30, 2012.