LAHORE, Pakistan – Should speech—even religiously-offensive speech—earn someone the death penalty? During our time in Pakistan, we heard a lot about the country’s controversial blasphemy laws, which make it a capital crime to blaspheme against Islam. Several countries around the world have laws against blasphemy, but according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Pakistan’s laws are “particularly pernicious.”
The Commission’s 2015 report lists several concerns about the laws: “There is no clear definition of blasphemy, which empowers the accuser to decide if a blasphemous act has occurred. No proof of intent is required, nor must evidence be presented after allegations are made.”
Charges of blasphemy are frequently lodged, and all too often, the allegations arise from personal disputes. In 2014, the Punjab Prosecution Department reviewed 262 blasphemy cases awaiting trial and recommended that 50 be dismissed as invalid. Among those accused of blasphemy were the owner of a major television station and an imam. There are currently nearly 40 prisoners convicted of blasphemy in Pakistan. Last year alone, five people were sentenced to death and one to life in prison. To date, no one has actually been executed under the laws.