The Pakistani government should immediately drop blasphemy charges against a 17-year-old student and ensure his safe release from detention, Human Rights Watch has said.
The authorities arrested Muhammad Samiullah on 28 January 2011, and charged him under Pakistan's 'blasphemy law', article 295-C of the criminal code, for allegedly including derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad in his answers on a written school exam in April 2010.
According to press reports, police at Shahra Noor Jahan Police Station in Karachi registered a case against Samiullah after receiving a complaint from the chief controller of the intermediate level education board. On January 29, a judicial magistrate, Ehsan A. Malik, ordered Samiullah sent to a juvenile prison pending trial.
"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 Bede Sheppard, senior children's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "It's bad enough that a school official flagged it, but for police and judicial authorities to go ahead and lock up a teenager under these circumstances is mind boggling."
The police have said that they cannot report exactly what was written in the exam paper as doing so would also amount to blasphemy.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty to which Pakistan is a party, guarantees everyone under age 18 the right to freedom of expression, thought, conscience, and religion.
Section 295-C of Pakistan's penal code makes the death penalty mandatory for blasphemy. Although this case involves a Muslim, Human Rights Watch has documented how the law is often used to persecute and discriminate against religious minorities in Pakistan.
Pakistan has applied the blasphemy law to children before, Human Rights Watch said. On 9 February 1995, Salamat Masih, a Pakistani Christian boy who was then 14 was sentenced to death for blasphemy by a lower court in Lahore, Pakistan, for allegedly writing derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad on the wall of a mosque. He was also sentenced to two years' hard labour and fined. Masih was acquitted on 23 February 1995, because the court found that he was, in fact, illiterate.
Masih then fled the country out of concerns for his safety. Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti, who acquitted Masih, was assassinated in his chambers at the Lahore High Court in 1997. The assassin, who was subsequently arrested, claimed to have murdered the judge as revenge for acquitting Masih.
Hundreds of people have been charged under section 295-C since it was added to the penal code in 1986 by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the military ruler at that time. In 2009, authorities charged scores of people under the law, including at least 50 members of the Ahmadiyya religious community. Many of those charged remain in prison.
Pakistani and international human rights organizations have long called for the repeal of the blasphemy law. The law has come under renewed scrutiny in recent months as a consequence of a death sentence imposed on 8 November 2010, on Asia Bibi, an illiterate farmhand from Sheikhupura district in Punjab province.
Extremists responded to government attempts to pardon Asia Bibi with a campaign of intimidation, violence, and threats against critics of the law. On 5 January, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was assassinated, and the man charged with the killing said he had committed the crime because Taseer had called the blasphemy law a "black law."
Sherry Rehman, Pakistan's former information minister, who in November proposed a parliamentary bill to amend the law, has also received death threats, which Pakistan's government has ignored.
"While Pakistan's government keeps up the mantra that it will not allow ‘misuse' of the law, government inaction has only emboldened extremists," Sheppard said. "Until this law is repealed, it will be used to brutalise religious minorities, children, and other vulnerable groups."