Pakistani and international rights campaigners have welcomed a Pakistani government decision to help some of the most vulnerable victims of the country's harsh blasphemy law.
Activists say Pakistan's "dangerously ambiguous and discriminatory blasphemy law" often targets religious minorities and is frequently abused to settle vendettas and property and business disputes.
Under a new program, authorities in the eastern province of Punjab have short-listed 50 cases of alleged blasphemy cases for special "fast track" trials. Blasphemy codes in Pakistan prescribe death penalty or life imprisonment for insulting the Prophet Muhammad or the Koran.
The provincial government will provide legal counsel for defendants deemed as "victimized" by a lack of evidence or their inability to secure such legal counsel. Some of the defendants are believed to be mentally ill.
"It is a good step forward," I. A. Rehman, the secretary general of the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told RFE/RL Gandhara. "For years, members of the judiciary have in private often expressed the view that the blasphemy law is used to victimize and persecute rivals and opponents and people whose properties somebody wants to grab."
Rehman, whose organization monitors human rights abuses, says the initiative is a good omen because most blasphemy cases are registered in Punjab. "In other provinces, their number is much smaller. So in Punjab, if such cases can be handled carefully and sympathetically, the effect of the blasphemy law will be much reduced."
New York–based global watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also called the development "a glimmer of hope" for victims of Pakistan's blasphemy law.
Phelim Kine, the organization's deputy director for Asia, says the hundreds of people jailed and awaiting trial for blasphemy now have reason to be cautiously optimistic.
"It's an important official recognition that the law is unfair and dangerous," he wrote on HRW's website. "The Punjab provincial initiative can't address the enormity of the abuses fostered by Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Pakistan’s federal government needs to take the next step and finally amend or repeal the blasphemy law ― and end the fear and discrimination it breeds."
Human rights campaigners hope the conclusion of these 50 cases will affect hundreds of similar cases across Pakistan. In Punjab alone, at least 262 people are awaiting trial on blasphemy charges in cases registered since 2010.
The vast majority of people accused of blasphemy are from among Pakistan's tiny non-Muslim minorities. Rehman says that in recent years Muslims too have been frequently implicated in blasphemy cases often because of personal or political disputes.
Kine says section 295-C of the Pakistani penal code or the blasphemy law "makes the death penalty effectively mandatory" for those convicted. Islamabad has so far not executed anyone, but at least 19 people in the country are on death row.
These include Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who is awaiting the verdict in her final appeal against conviction. The 50-year-old mother of five was convicted in 2010. Media reports say Bibi claimed her Muslim co-workers had accused her of insulting the Prophet Muhammad after a dispute over water.
In January 2011, an elite guard killed Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer for his campaign for Bibi's release and vociferously calling for a repeal of the blasphemy codes.
In today's Pakistan, even an accusation of blasphemy can be a death sentence. In November, an angry mob allegedly burned a Christian couple for allegedly desecrating a Koran. Pakistani police said Shama and Shahzad Masih worked in a brick kiln near Punjab's capital, Lahore. The same month, a police officer in the nearby city of Gujrat killed a man arrested on blasphemy allegations.
Even Pakistani lawyers and judges shun blasphemy cases. In May, unidentified gunmen killed Rashid Rehman. He was a lawyer and a member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and was defending a Muslim university teacher accused of blasphemy in Multan, a city in south Punjab.
I. A. Rehman says that while the current Pakistani government might not be able to repeal the blasphemy law, it should change the way blasphemy cases are handled.
"Nobody should be arrested before an investigation has been made by a judicial official," he said.