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Former EU FoRB Special Envoy Jan Figel’s views on religious freedom (Part I)

About blasphemy laws; violence against religious minorities; kidnapping, forced conversion and marriages of non-Muslim girls

By Willy Fautré, Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF)

HRWF (19.02.2022) – On the eve of the 8th Meeting of the Istanbul Process against religious intolerance, stigmatisation, discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against persons based on religion or belief hosted by Pakistan, EU Special Representative for Human Rights Eamon Gilmore delivered some welcoming remarks on behalf of the EU on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18.

Human Rights Without Frontiers interviewed former EU Special Envoy Jan Figel to share his views about the situation of religious freedom in Pakistan as during his mandate he had vigorously and successfully stood up for the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian sentenced to death by hanging on alleged blasphemy charges. After years spent on the death row, she was acquitted in 2018 by the Supreme Court on the grounds of insufficient evidence. She now lives in Canada.

HRWF: Pakistan is a beneficiary of the GSP+ scheme, which grants a privileged access for its products to the EU market, but members of the European Parliament and civil society organizations in Europe are pressing Brussels to suspend this status due to egregious violations of human rights in Pakistan. What is their main area of concern?

Jan Figel: Pakistan has been benefitting from trade preferences under the GSP+ program since 2014. The overall economic incentives from this unilateral trade advantage for the country are considerable, reaching billions of Euros. But almost every year the European Parliament adopts a critical resolution or statement on various crimes, human rights violations or judicial abuses. The GSP+ status came with the obligation for Pakistan to ratify and implement 27 international conventions, including commitments to guarantee human rights and religious freedom. This is a frequent and vast problem in Pakistan. The latest GSP+ assessment of Pakistan in 2020 by the Commission expressed a variety of serious concerns on the human rights situation in the country, notably the lack of progress in limiting the scope and implementation of the death penalty.

One of the most striking issues has been the continued use of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan since 1986 after they were adopted by the former military regime. Regrettably, civilian governments have not had enough goodwill, or courage, afterwards to get rid of these stringent provisions that are frequently misused against a neighbor or an opponent to settle personal scores. Almost 1900 persons have been charged in total so far, with the highest numbers in recent years. In 2019 the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed mentioned the case of Asia Bibi in his annual Report as one of the examples of a revival of anti-blasphemy and anti-apostasy laws and the use of public order laws to limit any expression deemed offensive to religious communities.

As a Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief outside the EU (2016-2019) I followed the case of Asia Bibi very closely and was involved with Pakistani authorities, repeatedly and intensively. The EU showed here its positive influence; it was an excellent example of effective diplomacy and soft power. Regrettably, this important effort has not been continued, there is no Special Envoy for FoRB outside the EU anymore. Obviously, FoRB is not a priority today as it was under Juncker´s Commission.

HRWF: To what extent are religious minorities victims of human rights violations and discrimination in Pakistan?

Jan Figel: Religious minorities face many types of social and religious discrimination. Such discrimination is also observed at the official level in state and public employment as well as in private sector jobs. Minorities are disliked, ignored and sidelined. Even in schools, children face such challenges. My Pakistani friends quite often tell me about their painful experience.

Discrimination of religious minorities became a usual, daily phenomenon in Pakistan, both officially and socially in the larger society. State condemnation of violence and discrimination of religious minorities especially against Hindus and Christians is, regrettably, only a lip service. We all know that slogans and hollow statements can never replace sincere commitments, continued efforts and justice for all. They are just meant to appease the international audience.

The most severe situation concerns Ahmadis, who claim their Islamic identity and belonging, but this is not recognized by the State.  Members of this community are openly and constitutionally discriminated against and they are frequently attacked by violent mobs. The government repeatedly showed its impotence to protect religious minorities who are regularly harassed: mainly Christians, Hindus, Shias, Ahmadis and Sikhs.

HRWF: Can you give some examples of recent incidents targeting religious minorities? 

Jan Figel: There are too many examples to share, unfortunately. Here are some of them. In 2020 Saleem Masih, a 22-year-old man in the city of Kasur, in Punjab province, was tortured to death by local landlords after they accused him of ‘polluting’ the water he bathed in. His only fault was that he was a Christian He was tortured to death for taking a dip in a village tube well in Pakistan.

Tabitha Gill, a Christian nurse in Karachi, was beaten in January 2021 by her Muslim colleagues who accused her of blasphemy.

Recently, Salma Tanveer, a Muslim woman and a mother of five children, was sentenced to death in September 2021 after spending nine years in prison.

Aneeqa Ateeq, a 26-year-old Muslim woman, was also sentenced to death in January 2022.

Some radical Muslims killed a Shia sect cleric Maulana Khan for alleged blasphemy in autumn 2020 in Karachi.

Blasphemy incidents affect Muslims and non-believers as well. It is critically high time to look closely at these issues and correct this whole unjust system.

A Sri Lankan factory manager was beaten to death and set ablaze by a mob over blasphemy accusations in Sialkot city, in Punjab, in December last.

 

Recently, in February, a crowd snatched a man accused of blasphemy at a police station in Khanewal, also in the Punjab Province. He was beaten and hanged. As journalist Waqar Gillani puts it, there is an unending tale of horror in Pakistan…

 

One must wonder where the rule of law is. On which side do the police stand?

 

Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was shot dead by an official bodyguard in 2011 because he criticized the blasphemy laws and demanded Asia Bibi to be pardoned.  Shortly after Taseer was gunned down, Shabaz Bhatti, the Federal Minister for Minorities and the only Christian in the Cabinet, was shot dead.

 

Peace in society is the fruit of justice. Justice delayed is justice denied, I repeated during my missions to Pakistan in Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore and Ravalpindi. Justice needs more than labels, slogans or words – it needs action, decisions and perseverance.

 

HRWF: Is there some truth in the kidnapping and forced conversion stories of about 1000 Pakistani girls per year?

Jan Figel: Rights groups say that every year in Pakistan as many as 1,000 minority girls are forcibly converted to Islam, often after being abducted or tricked. According to Amarnath Motumal, the vice-chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an estimated 20 or more Hindu girls are abducted and forcefully converted every month, although exact figures are impossible to gather.

In a shocking decision, the Lahore High Court has recently ruled in favor of a Muslim perpetrator who forcibly abducted, converted to Islam and married an underage Christian girl called Maria Shahbaz. The 14-year-old girl was abducted in Faisalabad in April 2020.

So, it is a majority Muslim dominance issue. The formal law does not allow marriage before 18 years. Such child conversions and marriages are therefore illegal. Recently, Pakistan has tried to pass a law against forced conversions but later the Government gave in to pressure of religious extremists and in September the bill was deferred.

Further reading about FORB in Pakistan on HRWF website

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