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Pakistan Could Review Tough Blasphemy Laws

Muhammad Khan Sherani
Muhammad Khan Sherani

A powerful cleric said on January 28 that he is willing to reopen the debate over Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws, which critics say have led to hundreds of deaths.

The debate on blasphemy law has so far been almost completely avoided by religious and political leaders in Pakistan, where even rumors of criticism of Islam have sparked deadly riots.

But Muhammad Khan Sherani, chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology, which advises the government on the compatibility of laws with Islam, said he was willing to look again at whether sentences as harsh as the death penalty were fair.

"The government of Pakistan should officially, at the government level, refer the law on committing blasphemy to the Council of Islamic Ideology," Sherani told Reuters. "Then the council can seriously consider things and give its recommendation of whether it needs to stay the same or if it needs to be hardened or if it needs to be softened.”

Sherani said there are differences of opinion on the matter among the clergy, but didn't disclose his own position.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws mandate the death penalty, although no sentence has been carried out. Critics say the law is abused in poor, rural areas by enemies falsely accusing others to settle personal scores. Those acquitted have often been lynched.

Sherani and his council made headlines and angered human rights activists recently after blocking a bill that would impose harsher penalties for marrying off girls as young as eight or nine.

In recent years, the 54-year old council has also ruled that DNA cannot be used as primary evidence in rape cases, and supported a law requiring woman alleging rape to get four male witnesses to testify in court before a case can be heard.

Senators have since debated whether the council, in its current form, is appropriate for the modern, democratic Pakistan that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said his country must become.

Sherani defended the recommendations, saying it was his job, as mandated by the constitution, to ensure the country's laws are in line with Islam. The council's advice is not binding.

He added that there are many un-Islamic laws in place that he is urging the government to overturn, as many of Pakistan's problems, including violence against religious minorities, are the result of the government failing to be sufficiently Islamic and instead pandering to the West.

"Pakistan's present government is a defender of the interests of the West," Sherani said. "Don't equate what the government thinks to what Islam is."

Reporting by Reuters