ASIA/PAKISTAN - UN alert: Judges under pressure to apply the "blasphemy law"

Islamabad (Agenzia Fides) - The issue of "blasphemy" is a "black hole" for the judicial system in Pakistan. The Pakistani judges are under pressure to condemn to death those accused under the "blasphemy law", while lawyers are reluctant to assuming the defense of the accused, because of intimidation. This is the complaint of Gabriela Knaul, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, at the conclusion of a 11-day visit to Pakistan, where she examined the country's judicial system. The "blasphemy Law" consists of two articles of the Criminal Code (295b and 295c) that ask for death penalty for anyone who insults Islam, its holy book or the prophet Mohammed. The law is often misused to settle personal or family feuds. Victims of false accusations are often Christians and other religious minorities. As reported to Fides, Gabriela Knaul remarked that "judges are forced to decide against the accused, without evidence to support" and that they fear "reprisals from the local community." The UN representative urged the Pakistani government to address the challenges that exist to ensure the independence of the judiciary system. Fr. James Channan OP, Director of the "Dominican Center for Peace" in Lahore, confirms to Fides: "The pressure from radical groups exist and influence the judges in courts of first instance. We saw, for example, among the last cases of blasphemy, in the story regarding Asia Bibi. Sometimes the Christians accused are acquitted in the appeal to the High Court or the Supreme Court. But even the judges who acquit the alleged blasphemers come under fire by extremists. The central problem is the abuse of the blasphemy law. The government has repeatedly verbally pledged to stop such abuses. The issue is not new, but we are happy that is raised at the United Nations. We hope that this position has an impact and that justice is guaranteed in Pakistani courts." In 2011 two important political figures who criticized the law on blasphemy were killed: the Muslim Salman Taseer, who was killed by a bodyguard in January 2011, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in the federal government, shot dead by militants in March 2011. (PA)) (Agenzia Fides 31/5/2012)