December 31, 2010

Pakistan businesses strike against blasphemy law changes

by Jan Harris

Business and transport workers across Pakistan are on strike in protest at calls to change the country’s blasphemy law, which can impose a death sentence on anyone who insults Islam.

The strike, which affects cities across Pakistan, was organized by Sunni Muslim clerics after a private member’s bill seeking to change the law was submitted to parliament.

Human rights groups claim that the law is used to persecute religious minorities, including Christians.

It came under the international spotlight when Christian woman Aasia Bibi was sentenced to death in November for offending the prophet, a claim she denies.

However, as in many allegations of blasphemy, great weight was given to the testimony of witnesses to the alleged incident.

The new bill, which seeks to abolish the death sentence and put safeguards into place to prevent miscarriages of justice, was drafted by a member of the Pakistan People’s Party and Sherry Reham, a former Information Minister.

Pakistan’s coalition government, which is led by the Pakistan People’s Party, is currently in a state of crisis.

The Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) party, which is the country’s largest Islamic party, pulled out of the coalition on 14 December after one of its minister was sacked by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani.

There is also concern over the commitment of the second largest party in the coalition, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which withdrew two ministers from the federal cabinet this week.

With the government in turmoil, political analysts are speculating that the strike is motivated more by a desire to add further pressure rather than by religious concerns.

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