Pakistan Supreme Court issues blasphemy warning

Pakistani Islamists and supporters of former bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri shout slogans calling for his release during a protest in Lahore on March 10, 2015

Pakistan's Supreme Court has called on the state to ensure that hundreds of people facing imprisonment and even execution under controversial blasphemy laws have not been falsely charged, often by enemies wanting to settle personal scores.

Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in Pakistan, an Islamic republic of 200 million, with even unproven allegations provoking mob lynchings and violence.

Critics including European governments say the country's laws against blasphemy are misused, with hundreds languishing in jails under false charges that could see them face fines, life imprisonment or death by hanging.

On Tuesday the Supreme Court issued a detailed judgement warning that in Islam a false accusation can be as serious as the blasphemy itself.

The judgement came just weeks after its historic ruling upholding the death sentence for Mumtaz Qadri, a former bodyguard who was feted by Islamists after he gunned down a politician who had been calling for blasphemy law reform.

Moderates had hailed the Qadri ruling as a blow against religious extremism, and on Tuesday the Supreme Court appeared to take another step in that direction.

Blasphemy is "abhorrent and immoral", the judgement said, "but at the same time a false allegation regarding commission of such an offence is equally detestable besides being culpable".

"It is, therefore, for the State of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to ensure that no innocent person is compelled or constrained to face an investigation or a trial on the basis of false or trumped up allegations regarding commission of such an offence," the ruling continued.

Qadri shot the liberal governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, in broad daylight in the capital Islamabad 2011.

Taseer had called for reforms to the blasphemy legislation and promised to help Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who has been on death row for five years for blasphemy after an argument with a Muslim woman over a bowl of water.

In its judgement Tuesday the Supreme Court also said that calls for blasphemy law reform "ought not to be mistaken as a call for doing away with that law".

Instead they should be seen as a call for introducing "adequate safeguards" against "malicious application" of the law.

On Wednesday 500 activists from the Islamist groups Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP) and Jamaat Ahle Sunnat held a rally in northwestern city of Peshawar to denounce the Supreme Court's Qadri verdict.

In a speech inciting vigilantism, cleric Mufti Meraj-ud-Din of the JUP said that if Qadri is executed those responsible should also be put to death.