ISLAMABAD: Senate's Human Rights Committee on Friday decided to carry forward conversation on blasphemy law in the light of a 1991 Senate report making critical recommendations but which unfortunately was confined to the archives for unknown reasons and remained untraceable for a long time.

The decision was taken after Senator Farhatullah Babar revealed details of the 1991 report and suggested that it be made as the starting reference point for suggesting ways and means to prevent misuse of the blasphemy law .

He disclosed that quarter of a century ago the Criminal Law (Third Amendment) Bill 1991 seeking mandatory death penalty for blasphemy was introduced in the Senate on November 4, 1991. The bill was promptly referred to the Standing Committee on Law and Justice on that day, he said.

Babar said that the law and justice committee was then headed by Raja Zafarul Haq, the present leader of the house in Senate, and included Yahya Bakhtiar among others.

In its report, the committee observed that there was need for a more specific definition of the offence under Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code.

According to the report, the committee also asked as to what punishment was given for blasphemy during the life time of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) or during the life time of four caliphs or afterwards and in other Muslim countries, he said.

While raising these questions the report, however, did not mention on whether it approve or disapprove the proposed amendment in the law, he said.

Later talking to the media, Babar said that according to the official report of the 36th session of the Senate on February 20, 1992 the committee chairman, Raja Zafarul Haq, moved that the delay in the presentation of the report be condoned was granted and the motion was adopted on that day.

According to the record, it only annexed the bill with its report raising questions and did not endorse the Amendment Bill, he said.

He said it was a mystery as to how and why the Criminal Law (Third Amendment) Bill 1991 was passed despite the fact that the relevant committee had sought some clarification and had not approved it.

Babar said that the report of the committee remained untraceable for a long time. He said he was alerted to it by IA Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and that is how he started searching and was finally able to locate it.

He said that a critical re-examination of the 295-C was needed particularly because this provision also did not enjoy the unanimous support of the Islamic scholars.

Giving historical background, he said that the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) in October 1990 ruled on a petition filed by Ismail Qureshi that the alternate punishment of life imprisonment for blasphemy was repugnant to Islam and should be deleted.

The FSC also directed to add a clause that any act of blasphemy of other prophets should also be punishable with death and that section 295-C be amended by April 30, 1991. However, this was also not done.

Babar said that even Ismail Qureshi had expressed apprehensions about its likely saying that its present form it could create ambiguity and legal complications emphasising also that proof of intent was necessary to secure conviction.

He said that the Supreme Court also recently ruled that discussion on blasphemy law and pointing out how to prevent its misuse was not blasphemy.

This verdict together with the disclosure about the senate committee’s report provides a good starting point for a robust and informed debate, said Babar.