Blasphemy laws: One-in-three countries still criminalise anti-religious sentiment, study finds

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Laws prohibiting are “astonishingly widespread” worldwide, with many laying down disproportionate punishments ranging from prison sentences to lashings or the , the lead author of a report on blasphemy said.

,  and score worst, topping a list of 71 countries with laws criminalising views deemed blasphemous, found in all regions, according to a comprehensive report issued this month by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The bipartisan US federal commission called for repeal of blasphemy statutes, saying they invited abuse and failed to protect freedoms of religion and expression.

“We found key patterns. All deviate from freedom of speech principles in some way, all have a vague formulation, with different interpretations,” Joelle Fiss, the Swiss-based lead author of the report told Reuters.

The ranking is based on how a state’s ban on blasphemy or criminalising of it contravenes international law principles.

Ireland and Spain had the “best scores”, as their laws order a fine, according to the report, which said many European states have blasphemy laws that are rarely invoked.

Some 86 percent of states with blasphemy laws prescribe imprisonment for convicted offenders, it said.

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Proportionality of punishment was a key criteria for the researchers.

“That is why Iran and Pakistan are the two highest countries because they explicitly have the death penalty in their law,” Fiss said, referring to their laws that enforce the death penalty for insulting the Prophet Mohammad.

Blasphemy laws can be misused by authorities to repress minorities, the report said, citing Pakistan and , and can serve as a pretext for religious extremists to foment hate.

Recent high-profile blasphemy cases include for insulting , a ruling which activists and UN experts condemned as unfair and politicised. Critics fear the ruling will embolden hardline Islamist forces to challenge secularism in .

A Pakistani court sentenced a man to death last month who allegedly committed blasphemy on Facebook, the first time the penalty was given for that crime on social media in Muslim-majority Pakistan.

“Each of the top five countries with the highest scoring laws has an official state religion,” the report said, referring to Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, and . All have Islam as their state religion.

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Saudi Arabia, where flogging and amputations have been reported for alleged blasphemy, is not among the top “highest-risk countries”, but only 12th, as punishment is not defined in the blasphemy law itself.

“They don’t have a written penal law, but rely on judges’ interpretation of the . The score was disproportionately low,” Fiss said. “If a law is very vague, it means prosecutors and judges have a lot of discretion to interpret.”

Reuters

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