The Chilling Effect of Rarely Used Laws

Governor of the Punjab Salmaan Taseer visits Aasia Bibi, Christian woman condemned to death under the Blasphemy Law. (Creative Commons Licenced photo from salmaantaseer on Flickr)

A depressing story to kick-off the New Year: The governor of the Pakistani province of Punjab, Salman Taseer, has been assasinated. The perpetrator cited Taseer’s support for the repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy law as the motive for the murder.

Human Rights campaigners often spend their time lobbying for the formal abolition of laws.  For example, at the end of 2009 I was involved in a free speech campaign to repeal the archaic law of seditious libel.  Some argued that there was little point in wasting time abolishing laws that have fallen into disuse.  They are de facto abolished anyway:  Couldn’t parliamentary time be better spent?
Certainly not.  There is always the chance that the law might be used by some future, illiberal government.  And in the case of blasphemy in Pakistan, we see how an oppressive law (for that is what the offence of blasphemy is, and must always be) can be used as an excuse for violence.  Supporters of Mr Taseer’s killer now cite the existence of these little-used as their excuse for righteous murder.  You don’t actually need to charge someone under a particular law, for that law to have a horrible chilling effect.

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