A candidate for prime minister in Pakistan’s upcoming general election has defended the country’s controversial blasphemy laws, which have been used to harass, jail, and kill members of religious minorities disproportionately.

Imran Khan, chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, a centrist party, said he fully supports the blasphemy law of the Pakistan Penal Code. The statement was made July 7 after giving an address at the Ulema and Mashaikh Conference at Golra Sharif in the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad.

“We are standing with Article 295c and will defend it,” said Khan, according to the Guardian.

A former member of the National Assembly of Pakistan, Khan will be considered for prime minister along with Shehbaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim Leage (N) and Bilawal Zardari of the Pakistan Peoples Party.

The general election will take place July 25. PML-N is forecast to win the election, though there have been allegations of vote rigging in favor of PTI.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws impose strict punishment on those who desecrate the Quran or who defame or insult Muhammad. Pakistan's state religion is Islam, and around 97 percent of the population is Muslim.

Although the government has never executed a person under the blasphemy law, accusations alone have inspired mob and vigilante violence.

Blasphemy laws are reportedly used to settle scores or to persecute religious minorities; while non-Muslims constitute only 3 percent of the Pakistani population, 14 percent of blasphemy cases have been levied against them.

Many of those accused of blasphemy are murdered, and advocates of changing the law are also targeted by violence.

In 2011 the Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim critic of the blasphemy laws, was assassinated. Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic and the only Christian in Pakistan’s cabinet, was also assassinated the same year by militant supporters of the blasphemy laws. Bhatti's cause for beatification was opened by the Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi in 2016.

The blasphemy laws were introduced between 1980 and 1986. The National Commission for Justice and Peace said over 1,300 people were accused under this law from 1987 until 2014. The Centre for Research and Security Studies reported that at least 65 people have been killed by vigilantes since 1990.

Pakistan’s authorities have consistently failed to implement safeguards on behalf of religious minorities, despite numerous policies in favor of economic and physical protections for members of non-Muslim religions.

In 2013, PML-N, the governing party, promised a quota for jobs in the educational institutes and the public sector for members of religious minorities. That same year, the PPP discussed an Equality Commission to monitor job quotas in Sindh.

After Muslim extremists attacked All Saints Church in Peshawar, killing over 70 people in 2014, Chief Justice Tassaduq Jillani issued an eight-point decree to improve access to jobs, education, and protective forces.

However, none of these safeguards have moved beyond verbal affirmation into action.

Last year, Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta was attacked by two suicide bombers. The attack killed 9 people and injured 35 others, according to the New York Times.  

A member of the Implementation of Minority Rights Forum said government support was not made available after the attack.

“The government was not ready to even disburse compensation cheques among families, and none of the minority parliamentarians were interested in making noise about it,” said Imtiaz, according to Dawn, Pakistan's largest English-language newspaper.