Last Updated: Thursday, 08 December 2016, 17:52 GMT

USCIRF Annual Report 2013 - Thematic Issues: Increasing adoption and enforcement of laws against blasphemy and defamation of religions

Publisher United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
Publication Date 30 April 2013
Cite as United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF Annual Report 2013 - Thematic Issues: Increasing adoption and enforcement of laws against blasphemy and defamation of religions, 30 April 2013, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/51826edf18.html [accessed 8 December 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Many countries around the world have laws that punish expression deemed blasphemous, defamatory, or insulting to religion or religious symbols, figures, or feelings. These laws are incompatible with international human rights standards, as they protect beliefs over individuals. In addition, they often result in violations of the freedoms of speech and religion, or at least a chilling of these rights, as they empower governments, majorities, and extremists to enforce particular religious views against individuals, minorities, and dissenters. Though often justified as needed to promote religious harmony, these laws in fact have the opposite effect, exacerbating religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence.

The existence and enforcement of these laws contradict consensus UN resolutions recognizing that religious intolerance is best fought through positive measures, such as education, outreach, and counter-speech, and that criminalization is only appropriate for incitement to imminent violence.[25] They also contradict the views of the UN Human Rights Committee, which has stated that "[p]rohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the [International] Covenant [on Civil and Political Rights],"[26] as well as the conclusions of an international group of experts convened by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Those experts recently recommended that "[s]tates that have blasphemy laws should repeal the[m] as such laws have a stifling impact on the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief and healthy dialogue and debate about religion."[27]

Several of the countries USCIRF reported on in the 2013 Annual Report have these types of laws and are enforcing them. The most egregious example is Pakistan, where, as discussed in this report's Pakistan chapter, USCIRF knows of 17 individuals currently on death row on blasphemy convictions and 20 serving life sentences, and where individuals have been murdered in vigilante violence associated with blasphemy allegations. Specific cases of religious blasphemy, defamation, or insult also are reported in the chapters on Egypt, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia. In some of these countries, such as Egypt, the number of blasphemy-type cases in this reporting period increased from previous years. In addition, as discussed in the relevant chapters, during this reporting period both Russia and the Kurdistan region of Iraq considered enacting new laws of this type.

USCIRF also is aware of cases of blasphemy, defamation of religion, or religious insult during this reporting period in the following countries:

Greece:

In September 2012, Philippos Loizos was arrested and charged with blasphemy for setting up a Facebook page criticizing a deceased Greek Orthodox monk as close-minded and xenophobic and mocking the monk's name, which was similar to the Greek word for a pasta dish. The blasphemy charge was later dropped, but replaced with a charge of insulting religion, which remains pending. Under the Greek penal code, blasphemy or insulting religion is subject to imprisonment for up to two years.

In November, blasphemy charges were brought against the director and cast of a play, Corpus Christi, which portrays Jesus and his apostles as homosexuals living in Texas. The play had been cancelled after weeks of sometimes violent protests against it. The charges remain pending. The play's director said in the press that he received death threats for several months, including threats sent to his parents.

In both cases, members of the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party, including Golden Dawn members of parliament, stirred up outrage against the expression at issue and called for the charges, as did some Greek Orthodox clergy. In the case of the play, the charges were filed by the Orthodox bishop of Piraeus.

India:

In March 2012, two lay Catholic organizations filed charges of "insulting religion" against the head of the Indian Rationalist Association, Sanal Edamaruku, after he questioned whether water dripping from a statue of Jesus in a Catholic church was a miracle or a plumbing issue. The charges are under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes "[d]eliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs," subject to imprisonment of 3 years, or a fine, or both. Edamaruku also received death threats. He has left India for Finland, where he remains.

In November, police in Mumbai arrested two women, Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan, and charged them under Section 295A of the Penal Code and Section 66A of the Information Technology Act for posting and liking a post on Facebook complaining about the city coming to a standstill after the death of a Hindu-nationalist leader, Bal K. Thakeray. (Section 66A penalizes sending a "grossly offensive" message through a computer resource or communication device with three years' imprisonment and a fine.) Shortly after she made the post, Dhada received a harassing phone call and a mob of Thackeray supporters descended on her neighborhood, demanding her arrest and vandalizing her uncle's medical clinic. Both women were released on bail the next day. The charges against the women were later dropped, and several police officials and the magistrate involved in the case were disciplined. Ten individuals involved in the violence also reportedly were arrested.

Kuwait:

During the reporting period, the Kuwaiti parliament voted to increase the criminal penalty for blasphemy to the death sentence. USCIRF wrote the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States to highlight that blasphemy laws violate international standards and UN resolutions that the Kuwaiti government had supported. In addition, USCIRF engaged the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait and the State Department about these concerns, and encouraged Members of Congress to write the Kuwaiti Emir. In June, the Emir vetoed the change in Kuwaiti law.

However, also in June 2012, in the midst of the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain to help quell Shi'i protests, a Kuwaiti court sentenced Shi'i blogger, Hamad al-Naqi to 10 years in prison for Twitter messages insulting Islam, the Prophet Mohammed, his wife, his companions, and Saudi and Bahraini leaders. Al-Naqi has said he did not write the messages and his account was hacked. An appeal is ongoing.

The Philippines:

In January 2013, a Manila trial court convicted Carlos Celdran under a penal code article that criminalizes "offending the religious feelings of the faithful." In 2010, to protest the Catholic church's opposition to a then-pending reproductive health bill, Celdran, dressed as author Jose Rizal, held up a sign reading "Damaso" and shouted "you bishops, stop getting involved in politics" during a service at Manila Cathedral, before being removed by police. Damaso is the last name of a villainous character, a corrupt and abusive priest, in Rizal's 1887 novel Nolo Me Tangere. Celdran is out on bail awaiting sentencing, which could be up to 13 months imprisonment.

Poland:

In October 2012, the Supreme Court of Poland reversed the acquittal of a heavy-metal rock musician, Adam "Nergal" Darski, on criminal charges of "offending religious feelings" for ripping up a Bible and criticizing the Catholic Church during a concert performance in 2007. A trial court found him not guilty in 2011, holding that what he had done was artistic expression, but prosecutors appealed. The Supreme Court held that a person may be convicted of offending religious feelings even if he had not directly intended to do so, as long as he was aware that his actions may lead to offense being taken. The case will now return to the trial court for further proceedings. The potential penalties are a fine, restriction of liberty, or up to two years' imprisonment.

Tunisia:

In March 2012, a Tunisian court sentenced two men – Ghazi Ben Mohamed Beji and Jaber Ben Abdallah Majri – to seven years in jail for publishing writings and caricatures perceived as offensive to Islam. In July, an appeals court upheld the verdict and prison terms.

In May 2012, a TV-station executive, Nabil Karoui, was fined 2,400 dinars (around $1,500) for "violating sacred values" and "disturbing the public order" by airing the film Persepolis on his channel in October 2011. Tunisian Salafi Muslims deemed the animated film, about a young girl growing up during the Iranian revolution, blasphemous because of a dream scene depicting God. After the film aired, armed mobs attacked Karoui's home and the Prime Minister's office, and during Karoui's trial, individuals opposed to the film attacked peaceful demonstrators supporting Karoui outside the courthouse. No charges have been brought against perpetrators of the violence. Karoui plans to appeal the fine.

Turkey:

In June 2012, an Istanbul court indicted Fazil Say, a prominent pianist and composer, on charges of "publicly insulting religious values that are adopted by a part of the nation." The charges are based on tweets in which Say, a self-declared atheist, allegedly insulted Islam. The trial began last autumn and will next resume in April. The potential penalty is up to 18 months in prison.


25 Human Rights Council, "Resolution 16/18: Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against, persons based on religion or belief," UN Doc. A/HRC/RES/16/18 (2011); General Assembly, "Resolution 66/167: Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping, stigmatization, discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against persons, based on religion or belief," UN Doc. A/RES/66/167 (2011); Human Rights Council, "Resolution 19/25 : Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against, persons based on religion or belief," UN Doc. A/HRC/RES/19/25 (2012); General Assembly, "Resolution 67/178: Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping, stigmatization, discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against persons, based on religion or belief," UN Doc. A/RES/67/178 (2012).

26 Human Rights Committee, "General comment no. 34, Article 19: Freedoms of opinion and expression," UN Doc. CCPR/C/GC/34, para. 48 (2011).

27 "Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, Conclusions and recommendations emanating from the four regional expert workshops organised by OHCHR in 2011, and adopted by experts in Rabat, Morocco on 5 October 2012," available at http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Opinion/SeminarRabat/Rabat_draft_outcome.pdf.

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