In Pakistan, vigilante attacks on the rise against accused blasphemers

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In many countries, a person talking to himself and ranting against God might well be offered mental health services; in Pakistan, he risks being handed a death sentence.

In the latest example of vigilante justice that has outraged human rights activists here and abroad, an unidentified man accused of blasphemy was forcibly dragged from a police station on the outskirts of a city in Punjab province earlier this month, beaten and burned to death, according to local police, who said his smoldering body was left in a heap on a public street.

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The man, reported to be mentally ill and homeless, was picked up by police following allegations that he had burned a copy of the Koran. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws make it a crime punishable by death to insult Islam or the prophet Muhammad or to defile the Koran.

Local officials said some 2,000 people descended on the police station in Bahawalpur, about 10 hours from Islamabad, where the suspect was being held and demanded that he be handed over. Police used tear gas and batons against the crowd but were hopelessly outnumbered.

The next day, President Asif Ali Zardari expressed his “profound grief and shock” over the killing. “No one should be allowed to take the law into his own hands, no matter what the crime is,” he said.

The attack marked the third time in as many weeks that a crowd of citizens had surrounded a police station demanding mob justice for an alleged blasphemer. But authorities were able to disperse the crowds in the previous incidents.

Last month, a mob armed with sticks and stones surrounded a Karachi police station, demanding that a 34-year-old local merchant be surrendered to them so they could kill him. The man, who allegedly had torn pages out of the Koran, told the Express Tribune newspaper that he heard voices commanding him to do things. A psychiatrist quoted by the paper said such cases should be medically evaluated.

Mental health professionals have long argued that the psychological condition of accused blasphemers should be taken into consideration, according to Zohra Yusuf, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. But, she added, there is not much sympathy for the mentally ill.

“When there is so little tolerance, and mob frenzy takes over, and there is a total absence of rationality or humanity, there is little that can be done,” Yusuf said.

“Very few people come out alive once there is a suspicion,” she added. “Even if they are not formally charged, they are killed. They have been killed in prisons, in hospitals. We’ve reached a stage where even talking about it is blasphemous.”

Any efforts to modify blasphemy laws are highly controversial in Pakistan and have led to bloodshed. Last year, the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, and the minister of minority religious affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, were assassinated for speaking out against the laws. Many Pakistanis celebrated the killings.

In May, U.N. Special Rapporteur Gabriela Knaul said that Pakistani lawyers who represent clients accused of blasphemy are often targeted and that judges feel they must decide against those defendants even when the evidence does not support a conviction.

“They are afraid of reprisals by local communities because of their interpretation of the law,” she said.

An editorial last Friday in the English-language daily Dawn said, “The state has yet to make clear in no uncertain terms that vigilante justice is not acceptable simply because the case happens to be one of blasphemy.” And this most recent case is evidence, it said, that “in the face of blasphemy allegations, the country’s justice and law-enforcement systems are helpless.”

Yusuf lamented that successive governments have allowed themselves to be intimidated by extremists where blasphemy is concerned. Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the military strongman, vowed to amend the laws while he was president, but he quickly backpedaled when clerics rose up against him.

“For a strong military government to step back, what can we expect from a weak civilian government?” Yusuf asked.

 
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