LHC prescribes investigation methodology for police in religious offenses

With people accused of blasphemy frequently suffering from a mental health affliction, police have been directed to ensure that competent forums undertake psychiatric evaluations of religious offences suspects during their investigations.

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This was directed by Lahore High Court Judge Tariq Saleem Sheikh in a verdict issued on Saturday.

The case

The verdict was issued on a petition filed by a Mianwali resident to quash an FIR registered against him under Section 295-A.

295-A: Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting Its religion or religious beliefs: Whoever, with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the ’religious feelings of any class of the citizens of Pakistan, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations insults the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, or with fine, or with both.

The petitioner contended that the FIR did not state what blasphemous notions the petitioner holds and when he expressed them. Further, the petitioner contended that narration of dreams of seeing certain holy persons does not constitute an offence under Section 295-A.

The court ruled that the facts mentioned in the FIR and the evidence gathered by the police during evidence did not constitute an offence under Section 295-A and quashed the FIR.

The judge, however, continued to highlight an “important issue” in the verdict.

“It frequently happens that those accused of blasphemy have a mental condition,” Judge Sheikh wrote.

“People suffering from diseases such as mania and schizophrenia may lack behavioral constraints and understanding or exhibit grandiose and strange delusional notions that they have descended from God,” he said.

“Autistic people with varying degrees of intellectual disability are another diagnostic group that cannot follow social rules of appropriate reverence and care for what the community considers sacred,” he added.

“In some cases, neurotic disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder can impose an oppressive demand on the person to blaspheme, which can have serious legal ramifications if the community reveres the objects of the blasphemy,” the verdict added.

“Those suffering from mental illnesses should be provided treatment and protected against punishment.”

The judge pointed to the fundamental right of ‘fair trial’ under the law and how it was a cornerstone of the judicial system.

The verdict noted that investigation into an offence begins when information about it is given to the officer-in-charge of a police station and that its primary objective is to determine the facts and circumstances of the case.

“A fair investigation is essential to the right to a fair trial.”

Further, the court noted that Pakistani law protects people with mental illnesses or impairments with Section 464 of the Criminal Procedure Code ordaining that a person of “unsound mind” who is incapable of assisting in his own defence cannot be tried while Section 84 PPC recognizes the legal insanity defence.

“Article 10-A of the Constitution and the principle of fair investigation discussed above require that when a police officer investigates an offence, particularly one under Chapter XV of the Penal Code, he should determine whether the accused is of sound mind,” the court ruled, adding that the investigating officer “must apply to the competent forum for his psychiatric evaluation if he suspects mental illness.”

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