Besides other issues pertaining to blasphemy cases under Section 295-C of Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), the procedures of the pre-arrest investigation, to the arrest of the accused and the prosecution are not followed strictly.
It is a fact that very few safeguards have been introduced to check misuse of this law and even these are not applied. What actually happens is different from what is proposed or expected.
One example is that under Section 156 A of Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), only an officer of the rank of Superintendent of Police (SP) can carry out investigations against the accused. This amendment was introduced in 2004 and the thought behind it was that the low-rank police officers might not be able to resist pressure of complainants that are normally in huge numbers, and are backed by influential people.
“Apparently, this condition is followed but SPs hardly investigate these cases. Instead, they ceremoniously put their signatures on the sheets carrying details of investigations done at the thana level,” says Naeem Shakir, a lawyer with experience of contesting blasphemy cases. “Another practice,” he says, “is that the approval of the concerned SP is sought on phone and there is no trace of investigation carried out on the ground.”
The offences under 295-C are cognizable, and there is no requirement of a complaint made on the order of, or under authority from the government for the courts to take up these cases. Section 196 of PPC prescribes following this procedure in prosecution of offences against the State, but cases under 295-C are exempt from this condition.
So, what actually happens is that in such cases police mostly arrests the individual accused of blasphemy right away and that too without the required preliminary investigations. Either they do it under pressure from the complainants or on the pretext of protecting the accused and their families from the highly-charged mobs.
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Peter Jacob from the Center for Social Justice (CSJ) believes that though such arrests are against rules; in the existing situation this practice is helpful/desired as the accused gets protection from the charged mobs. “Even the families of the accused turn them in — in order to avoid harm coming their way.”
“Besides,” he says, “the police also tries to get judicial remand of the accused, instead of physical remand, so that they can be sent to the prison without delay. The presence of the accused in a police station is too risky as it can be ransacked or even burnt by the complainants.”
At the prosecution level, “the prescribed procedures are also not followed and there seems to be an urgency on the part of the lower courts to announce verdicts,” adds Shakir. He says that witness statements are considered to be enough and corroborative evidence is not sought in many cases.
It has also been observed that cross-examination of witnesses is discouraged as in such cases they might have to repeat the blasphemous remarks or explain the act. Witnesses also fear allegations of blasphemy if they do that.
Shakir cites proceedings of the Supreme Court in which a former chief justice reprimanded police officials for producing a weak FIR on the basis of which they wanted to proceed with the case. He questioned as to how they could prove someone guilty without any mention of what he had done. “It was a suo motu case, so on the next hearing the police produced a supplementary statement of the complainant carrying highly objectionable blasphemous content,” he adds. This, he says, “shows to what extent can complainants and law enforcers go to substantiate their claims.”
The extraordinary delay in fixing and hearing of appeals in blasphemy cases also goes against the convicts. As the crime under 295-C is non-bailable, convicts languish in prisons for ages before they are acquitted by the superior courts.
In this context, there has been a recent development that discourages false accusations of blasphemy as well. In February last, Pakistan’s National Assembly introduced amendments in certain criminal laws under the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act 2017.
Section 182 of the PPC which criminalises the act of providing “false information with intent to cause public servant to use his lawful power to the injury of another person” has also been amended. After the amendment, an imprisonment of seven years has been prescribed in case false information is given while trying someone for an offence punishable by death. Earlier, the maximum punishment period under this section was six months of imprisonment. This section also applies to people falsely accusing others of blasphemy.