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NIGERIA: Sufi musician Yahaya Sharif-Aminu in prison for blasphemy

Against Nigeria’s blasphemy laws

No one should be killed over their beliefs

By Kelsey Zorzi

 

The Critic (03.12.2022) – https://bit.ly/3XU1MoF – In Nigeria, you can be put to death under the law for the “crime” of blasphemy. Sufi musician Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, currently imprisoned for blasphemy, has petitioned the Nigerian Supreme Court to put an end to his criminal case, which centres on his sharing religious lyrics on the popular messaging platform WhatsApp. For exercising his fundamental rights to free expression and religious freedom, Yahaya’s life is on the line. This potentially landmark case could abolish once and for all Northern Nigeria’s Sharia blasphemy law — an urgently needed step for the peaceful coexistence of faiths in the country.

 

In March 2020 Yahaya shared song lyrics via WhatsApp that others viewed as insulting to the Prophet Muhammad. His house was burned to the ground by a mob, and he was promptly arrested and charged with blasphemy under the Sharia Penal Code of Kano State. Without legal representation, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to death by hanging by a local Sharia judge.

 

Innocent of any crime, Yahaya now has appealed to the Supreme Court for justice. He filed his notice of appeal this month, following a decision by the lower courts to issue a retrial after an initial overturning of his conviction. If retried, Yahaya would more than likely be unjustly convicted again, landing him back on death row. It is thus imperative, and urgent, for the Supreme Court to hear his case and bring much needed legal clarity to end the abomination of blasphemy laws in Nigeria.

 

In a split country, everyone stands to lose under these laws

In accordance with Nigeria’s own constitution, the Supreme Court should rule decisively in favour of Yahaya’s rights to free expression and religious freedom. International law — including international treaties to which Nigeria is a party — also demands that the Court uphold Yahaya’s fundamental freedoms.

 

Blasphemy laws are not unique to Nigeria. Approximately 40 per cent of countries in the world have blasphemy laws in some form, and there are currently at least seven countries where a conviction for blasphemy can result in the death penalty. This is a crucial moment for Nigeria to step out as an international leader on the abolishment of blasphemy laws and serve as a model for other countries looking to end this grave human rights abuse.

 

Blasphemy laws have greatly exacerbated religious tensions in Nigeria. The criminalization of blasphemy perpetuates societal violence, giving fodder to existing tensions by sanctioning violence with a seal of legal approval. It breeds a climate of censorship, silencing individuals with the fear of breaking the law for sharing their faith. As exemplified by Yahaya’s case, such laws punish the innocent who dare to express themselves.

 

Nobody should be punished, much less killed, for their religious ideas. Any person of faith or no faith at all can be sanctioned, and even killed, as a result of a blasphemy accusation. In a country of over 200 million, split nearly evenly between Christians and Muslims, everyone stands to lose under these laws. Their abolishment would dramatically improve the prospects for human rights in Nigeria.

 

Christian student Deborah Yakubu was stoned to death

The reality of religiously motivated violence on the ground in Nigeria is grim. In the period between January 2021 and March 2022, over 6,000 Christians were targeted and killed. In May of this year, Christian student Deborah Yakubu was stoned to death and her body burned in Sokoto State, Nigeria, after classmates deemed her WhatsApp messages blasphemous. Following this tragedy, Rhoda Ya’u Jatau, a Christian woman from the northeast, is now on trial for blasphemy for sharing a WhatsApp message condemning Deborah’s brutal killing. Earlier this year, humanist Mubarak Bala was sentenced to 24 years in prison for social media posts critical of Islam.

 

The international religious freedom community has united in calling for urgent action to end the violence in Nigeria. In the United States, advocates repeatedly have called for the Biden administration to reinstate Nigeria as a “Country of Political Concern” on the State Department’s list of the world’s worst religious freedom violators.

 

The UK recently joined 17 other countries, as the chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, in “unequivocally” calling for the end of the use of the death penalty for allegations of blasphemy, apostasy or religious insult. Last week at a parliamentary debate on the persecution of Christians, MP Fiona Bruce, the UK Special Envoy for freedom of religion or belief, gave an account of the “multiple atrocities happening in Nigeria”. Earlier this year, she raised Yahaya Sharif-Aminu’s case specifically in Parliament as an example of the application of the death penalty for blasphemy occurring in Commonwealth countries.

 

With a judgment expected in the spring of 2023, all eyes are on the Nigerian Supreme Court as we await justice for Yahaya and, ultimately, the abolishment of blasphemy laws in Northern Nigeria. Progress for Nigeria is contingent on fostering the robust freedom of expression and religion needed for a society to thrive. As Yahaya appeals not only for his own life, but for the rights of all Nigerians, let us stand with him and declare without reserve: everyone has the right to express their opinions. In a free society, all should be able to express their beliefs without fear.

 

Photo: www.ex-muslim.org.uk

Further reading about FORB in Nigeria on HRWF website





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PAKISTAN: Ashfaq Masih: another Christian sentenced to death for blasphemy

Ashfaq Masih: another Christian sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan

Claiming during a commercial dispute that he “follows only Jesus” and does not give discounts to members of Sufi ascetic orders was enough for getting a capital sentence.

By Daniela Bovolenta

 

Bitter Winter (11.07.2022) – https://bit.ly/3IVqfTz – On July 4, 2022, a Lahore, Pakistan, Session Court sentence to death for blasphemy a Christian called Ashfaq Masih. The decision follows a similar one of June 11, when the High Court confirmed the death penalty in a case concerning two Christian brothers, Amoon and Qaiser Ayub.

Masih’ s family has released a statement where the man explains what happened in June 2017, when he was arrested. He has been in jail ever since, except when in November 2019 he was accompanied by the police, handcuffed, to his mother’s funeral.

“I am innocent, Masih said, the case against me is baseless, false, and frivolous and framed against me just to destroy my business. My business was running well, and I was very happy but Muhammad Naveed, who is also a motorcycle mechanic and had started a shop in front of me, was jealous because my business was doing well and had a good reputation in the area. We had already fought a few days before the incident. And he had threatened me with dire consequences. On the day of the incident, I had an argument with Muhammad Irfan, who was refusing to pay me after getting his bicycle repaired. When I asked Irfan to pay the bill we agreed, he responded by saying ‘I am a follower of Peer Fakhir (Sufi Muslim ascetics) and don’t ask for the bill.’ I insisted for my bill and said that I don’t follow anyone other than Jesus, and so wasn’t interested in the man’s religious status.”

“Irfan went to Naveed’s shop and after a few minutes he came back and turned the whole matter into religious affairs and started accusing me of committing blasphemy. People started gathering around my shop, and the owner [of the premises where I work], Muhammad Ashfaq, who had already asked me to vacate his shop, also arrived. This was an opportunity for Naveed and Ashfaq to settle the score, so they complained to the police and the police registered a first information report (FIR) under blasphemy law section 295 C which has a mandatory death penalty.”

The statement “I follow only Jesus” was constructed as “I refuse to follow Prophet Muhammad” and qualified as blasphemy. The Session Court agreed.

The family also said that the judgement was delivered very quickly, and without really listening to the defense. This is the rule in lower courts in Pakistan, where accusations of blasphemy are automatically believed. Masih now places his hopes in the appeal.

Photo: Ashfaq Masih. From Twitter.

Further reading about FORB in Pakistan on HRWF website





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INDONESIA: Police in Java charge man with blasphemy for desecrating Quran

Police in Indonesia’s West Java charge man with blasphemy for desecrating Quran

Iqna (07.05.2022) – https://bit.ly/3FH5pFF – Cepdika Eka Rismana, 25, a resident of Sukabumi city in West Java, was arrested at a restaurant in the city on May 5, police said. He was then charged with blasphemy.

The arrest came after a Muslim group in the province held a protest rally in front of Eka’s parental house in Cianjur and his own house in Sukabumi. They were enraged after a video went viral on social media that showed Eka trampling on a Quran.

“I am Dika Eka consciously, I challenge all Muslims,” Eka said on the video while committing the act.

Police also arrested Eka’s wife on May 5 and named her as a suspect. She is accused of uploading the video on her Facebook, Instagram and Twitter profiles.

If found guilty, the couple could be jailed up to six years under Indonesian criminal law.

Eka and his wife are Muslims but Eka claimed he has converted to another religion without naming it.

West Java police spokesman Ibrahim Tompo confirmed the arrests. “Eka and his wife have been arrested and now they are detained at the police station for interrogation,” Tompo said on May 5.

Tompo said Eka had committed the act in 2020 and the video was saved on his mobile phone.

“It was uploaded by his wife on social media after the couple had a quarrel in April this year, so his wife was also arrested and named as a suspect,” he said.

The Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s leading Islamic scholars’ body, called on Muslims to remain calm and refrain from vigilante attacks.

“Let the police handle the perpetrator legally,” Muhammad Cholil Nafis, the council’s chairman, said on May 6. “I call upon Muslims to remain calm and not to get provoked over the incident.”

Father Antonius Benny Susetyo, a member of a presidential unit promoting communal tolerance, applauded the police for the quick arrests that prevented possible anarchy over the incident.

The priest said such offensive acts should be handled properly to stop possible conflict that can destroy unity and harmony.

“All blasphemy cases should be processed fairly. Don’t let this cause conflict that can damage the unity of people and destroy the nation,” Father Susetyo told UCA News.

The priest said people of all religions need to respect each other to prevent blasphemy and insisted the law must allowed to take its course to deal with the perpetrators.

Indonesia has seen a series of blasphemy cases in recent times.

On April 9, a court in West Java sentenced Christian YouTuber Muhammad Kace to 10 years in jail. Kace, a Muslim convert, was accused of insulting Islam and Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in a video posted on YouTube.

Police are also hunting Christian pastor Abraham Ben Moses, who has been accused of blasphemy after he urged Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas to remove 300 verses from the Quran.

Moses, 57, has reportedly fled to the United States to avoid arrest.

 

Photo: ucanews.com

Further reading about FORB in Indonesia on HRWF website





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PAKISTAN: Questions to EU Commission about blasphemy laws by an MEP

Questions from MEP Martusciello about blasphemy laws to EU Commissioner Dombrovskis

HRWF (02.05.2022) – On April 28th, there was an informal hearing in the European Parliament (EP) to ask what the European Commission has done in response to the 29 April 2021 EP Resolution calling for suspension of Pakistan’s GSP+ favoured nation trading status in the light of that country’s failure to honour its human rights commitments. That resolution had been adopted by 681 MEPs; only three MEPs had opposed it. It was calling on the Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS)

 

to immediately review Pakistan’s eligibility for GSP+ status in the light of current events and whether there is sufficient reason to initiate a procedure for the temporary withdrawal of this status and the benefits that come with it, and to report to the European Parliament on this matter as soon as possible.”

 

The hearing was hosted by Fulvio Martusciello MEP (EPP group).

 

The moderator was Willy Fautre, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers.

 

Before the hearing, MEP Martusciello sent EU Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis a number of questions on issues which have been a source of deep concern for a long time for human rights organizations.

Questions addressed to EU Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis

The following questions were  forwarded to EU Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis in advance of the event.

 

In April 2021 the European Parliament called on the European Commission to and the European External Action Service to to immediately review Pakistan’s eligibility for its continued GSP+ status in the light of continued human rights abuses in that country, drawing particular attention to the highly controversial ‘Blasphemy laws.’

 

Since April 2021, what concrete steps have the European Commission and the European External Action Service taken to pressure the government of Pakistan to address the human rights issues raised by the European Parliament?

 

What dialogue has taken place between the European Commission, the European External Action Service, and the government of Pakistan with the view to urging the latter to abolish the blasphemy laws?

 

What is the current situation concerning Pakistan’s GSP+ status?

 

Will the European Commission and the European External Action Service assure us that these issues will be prioritised with the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, Shehbaz Sharif, and indicate when this will be done?

 

Civil society organizations are waiting for the Commissioner’s response. Hopefully as soon as possible.

 

In this regard, Manel Msalmi international Affairs Advisor to Mep (EPP Group) and president of the European Association for The Defense of Minorities said “What we expect from the commissioner is to put human rights issues as well as minorities rights on the top of the agenda and urge the government of Pakistan to abolish blasphemy laws.  We also would like to learn about the current situation concerning GSP+ status and a guarantee that human rights issues will be prioritized in the dialogue between the EEAS and the new PM of Pakistan Shehbaz Sharif.”

And Gary Cartwright from EU Today added: “Pakistan was granted GSP+ status as an incentive to address serious human rights issues. This has not happened and so the status must be suspended. Otherwise, what message is the Commission sending out to other regimes which show little or no regard for human rights.”

 

 

The blasphemy laws in the dock

 

During the introduction, the moderator explained why those blasphemy laws were an acute problem for religious minorities in Pakistan and for the international human rights community. He was quoted as saying:

 

“Blasphemy laws are the single most draconian laws that undermine freedom of thought, religion or expression. It literally suffocates the religious minorities, instills deadly fear of mob violence and forces religious minorities into submission to the whims and authority of the majority.

 

Government efforts towards Islamization of Pakistan’s civil and criminal law, which began in the early 1980s, have dangerously undermined fundamental right to freedom of religion and expression, and have led to serious abuses against the country’s religious minorities. The broad and vague provisions of a series of laws known collectively as the “blasphemy” laws, which strengthen criminal penalties for offenses against Islam, have been used to bring politically motivated charges of blasphemy or other religious offenses against members of religious minorities as well as some Muslims.

 

The blasphemy laws have also contributed to a climate of religious bigotry which has led to discrimination, harassment and violent attacks on minorities – abuses which are apparently tolerated, if not condoned, by some political leaders and government officials.

 

In its Resolution last year, the European Parliament stressed that

 

  • the blasphemy laws incite harassment, violence and murder against those being accused
  • people who are accused of blasphemy have to fear for their lives regardless of the outcome of judicial procedures
  • blasphemy laws are often abused by making false accusations that serve the personal interests of the accuser.

 

Moreover, blasphemy laws make it dangerous for religious minorities to express themselves freely or engage publicly in religious activities.

 

Any attempt to reform the laws and their application or to discuss these issues in the media have been stifled by threats and assassinations.

 

According to the Centre for Social Justice in Pakistan, at least 1855 people have been charged under the blasphemy laws between 1987 and February 2021, with the highest number of acusations taking place in 2020.

 

Our organization, Human Rights Without Frontiers, has a database of 47 documented cases of believers of all faiths in Pakistan who are in jail on the basis of the blasphemy laws. These include 26 Christians, 15 Sunni Muslims, 5 Ahmadis and 1 Shia Muslim. But there are certainly more. Sixteen have been sentenced to death; another 16 have been sentenced life imprisonment, ten have been sentenced to prison for years and in the other cases, the status is not known.”

Photo: Hearing about blasphemy laws in Pakistan at the European Parliament on 27 April 2022. Credit: HRWF

Further reading about FORB in Pakistan on HRWF website





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PAKISTAN: Jan Figel’s views on religious freedom (Part I)

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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