ISLAMABAD: A liberal lawmaker on Thursday accused Pakistan’s prime minister of sabotaging efforts to reform blasphemy laws that have been widely condemned by rights groups.
“Appeasement of extremism is a policy that will have its blowback,” said Sherry Rehman, a lawmaker for the main ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
The former information minister petitioned parliament to reform the legislation in November after a Christian woman was sentenced to death, but the private member’s bill was never listed on parliament’s agenda.
Despite escalating international condemnation and the murder of politician Salman Taseer for backing reform, the government refuses to consider any amendment, bowing to protest from the nation’s powerful religious right-wing.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Wednesday told lawmakers that Rehman “agreed to withdraw her bill according to party policy”.
“The prime minister categorically made it clear that government has no intention to amend the law. Neither he nor the speaker of the national assembly has constituted any committee to consider the amendment bill,” his office said.
A furious Rehman disagreed, but said she had “no option” but abide by the decision after the prime minister ruled out any discussion.
“It was a question of protecting our citizens from injustice done in the name of a religion that values peace and tolerance more than anything else,” she said.
The government had pledged to keep intact the blasphemy law on December 30, in a bid to head off threatened protests.
The move exposed Rehman and Taseer as lone campaigners. Five days later Taseer was murdered outside an Islamabad cafe by his bodyguard, since lauded a hero by hundreds of religious conservative clerics, student activists and lawyers.
The law stirred fresh controversy this week after the arrest of a 17-year-old boy for allegedly writing a blasphemous comment in a school exam.
Human rights campaigners say the law encourages Islamist extremism and is too often used to settle personal scores.
“Pakistan has set the standard for intolerance when it comes to misusing blasphemy laws, but sending a schoolboy to jail for something he scribbled on an exam paper is truly appalling,” said Human Rights Watch.
While the law carries a maximum penalty of death, those sentenced to hang in the past have had their sentences overturned or commuted on appeal.