By Mehreen Zahra-Malik
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Pakistani Senate committee is set to debate how to prevent the country's blasphemy laws being applied unfairly, despite opposition from religious conservatives who support legislation that carries a mandatory death penalty for insulting Islam.
Senator Farhatullah Babar told Reuters that the Senate Committee on Human Rights, of which he is a member, will start discussions on blasphemy laws as early as next week, based on recommendations from a 24-year-old report.
He said it would be the first time in decades that any parliamentary body had considered a formal proposal to stop the abuse of the blasphemy laws.
According to Babar, the committee would consider a proposal making it binding to investigate complaints before registering a case, to ensure "genuine blasphemy" had been committed and the law was not being used to settle scores, as critics say it is.
He also said the committee would debate whether life imprisonment was an adequate punishment, instead of the mandatory death penalty.
Many conservatives in Pakistan consider even criticizing the laws as blasphemy, and in 2011 a Pakistani governor, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his bodyguard after calling for reform of the laws.
His killer was hailed as a hero by religious hardliners, and tens of thousands of supporters attended his funeral after he was executed last year.
If the committee makes any recommendations, it would be only the first step in a long process to bring about change in how the laws are enforced.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's office declined to comment on the Senate committee's moves.
His party's support would be needed for any measures to move forward, and while legislation protecting women's rights has been passed and Sharif has reached out to minorities, it is unclear if he would risk a backlash over blasphemy.
Hundreds of Pakistanis are on death row for blasphemy convictions, and at least 65 people, including lawyers, defendants and judges, have been murdered over blasphemy allegations since 1990, according to figures from the Center for Research and Security Studies based in the capital Islamabad.
Pakistan's religious and political elites almost universally steer clear of speaking against blasphemy laws, but a small group of lawmakers has been looking for ways to reduce abuses.
Babar said the Human Rights Committee hit a "gold mine" when he discovered a 24-year-old Senate report that called for a more specific definition of blasphemy and said further debate was needed on whether expunging "imprisonment of life" from an earlier law had been correct.
"So we convinced other senators that here we have a chance, we have a starting point, we have this report in hand. Let's debate it and see how we can prevent abuse of this law," Babar said.
However, powerful religious conservatives who have millions of followers strongly support the laws.
Tahir Ashrafi, head of the influential Pakistan Ulema Council of Muslim clerics, said it would oppose any change.
"Make new laws to punish those who abuse blasphemy laws," Ashrafi told Reuters. "But no one can even think about changing this law."
Last week, Pakistani police arrested 150 hardline activists rallying in support of the blasphemy laws on the anniversary of the assassination of Taseer, the Punjab governor shot dead by his bodyguard for calling for reform.
Police have also resisted a demand by hardliners to register a blasphemy case against Shaan Taseer, the slain governor's son, over a Christmas message calling for prayers for those charged under the "inhumane" legislation.
"This government has shown a firmer stance than the government when my father was martyred," Shaan Taseer said.
But public opinion remains a major obstacle to reform. On the outskirts of Islamabad, thousands still visit the shrine of Mumtaz Qadri, executed last February for Taseer's murder.
The large shrine, with a glass roof and shiny marble floors, was built over his grave days after the burial.
Taxi driver Waheed Gul says he has come to the shrine every day since it was built:
"What better way to spend my days than to pray every day at the grave of someone who sent a blasphemer to hell?"
(Writing by Mehreen Zahra-Malik; Editing by Mike Collett-White)