The decision of the Fifth Section of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of E.S. v. Austria has been welcomed by Islamists in Pakistan and condemned by secularists in Europe. It has also been misunderstood. Some of those who have condemned the refusal of the Court to denounce Austria’s domestic criminal law are those who on other occasions would denounce it for interfering in the sovereignty of an independent country.
In strict legal terms all that the Court has done is to rule that an Austrian law making it a crime – in some circumstances – to “disparage” religion, is not incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
It has not established a Europe-wide blasphemy law. It has not ruled that criticising or insulting Muhammad is a crime. It has not ruled that it is criminal to be rude about the Muslim faith. It has not ruled that Islam is entitled to legal protection denied to other religions.
Nor is it necessarily the last word in the case. There is still some prospect that it will be heard by the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR which could reverse the decision.
But for all that, it is a dreadful judgment, not least because it has immediately and predictably been hailed by Muslim religious fanatics as support for their demand to hang the the 47 year old Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi for supposedly insulting Muhammad. Worse still, it does so at a time when the Pakistan Supreme Court has reserved judgment and is considering whether to uphold her conviction and death sentence.
The Pakistan Supreme Court will shortly rule on whether 47 year old Asia Bibi must hang for blasphemy. If she loses her appeal, she is likely to become the first person to be executed under Pakistan’s extraordinarily harsh blasphemy laws.
To read the judgments of the Pakistan courts is, for an English lawyer, to enter a world which seems strangely familiar and yet utterly alien.
The language of the judges bears a close relationship to the language of the English courts: there are “Honourable Judges” (though usually abbreviated to “Hon’ble”) the senior judges are called “Mr (or very rarely “Mrs” or “Miss”) Justice,” all counsel are “learned” and many of the laws enforced still date from the days of the British Empire. The Penal Code, for example, still contains reference to [the admittedly repealed] Section 58, with its Dickensian “Offenders sentenced to transportation, how dealt with until transported,” and Section 56 which deals with “Sentence of Europeans and Americans to penal servitude” (in the days of the Raj, European prisoners were accommodated in a special “European only” prison, or repatriated to serve their sentences in a cooler climate). Still very much in force, however, is a death penalty, carried out just as the British liked it, with an old fashioned noose, gallows and long drop. Continue reading “Asia Bibi’s life is in the hands of the Pakistan Supreme Court”