THE human-rights lawyer who has risked his life by defending
Asia Bibi has denounced the blasphemy law under which she has been
sentenced to death as a "tool of oppression".
Naeem Shakir, a lawyer who has acted for Asia
Bibi, told an audience at Westminster Abbey on Saturday that
the international community must put pressure on the Pakistani
authorities to reform the law. "Sharing your concern from wherever
you are is important," he said, because "no change is forthcoming,
due to the unavailability of any kind of dialogue. . . We do not
find anywhere to seriously deliberate these issues."
He went on: "Political actors are not concerned . . . to deliver
justice. . . . They do not want to distress their constituencies by
disturbing the religious extremists."
The death penalty for blasphemy was recommended in Pakistani law
in 1986. There was now, Mr Shakir said, "a wrong public impression,
created by vested interests, that this law is . . . divinely
mandated", whereas it had been "framed by earthly men" and did a
disservice to Islam, undermining the "basic principles of Islamic
jurisprudence". As a man-made law, it was "not static", and could
be reformed. "This law is flawed. This law is against the Qur'an
[and] a tool of oppression."
As for the argument that, without the law, people would take
justice into their own hands, he said: "People are already doing
[that]." He pointed to the case of a Christian couple beaten and
burned in a kiln last month, after being accused of desecrating the
On Saturday, he declined to focus his talk on the
particularities of Mrs Bibi's case, but noted the "glaring
contradictions" in the witnessses' testimonies and the six-day
delay in bringing the accusation against her. The atmosphere in
courts also prevented the safe administration of justice, he said,
given the intimidating presence of "religious extremists".
Saturday's event was convened by the Revd Rana Youab Khan,
Assistant Curate of St Anselm's, Belmont, in the diocese of London,
and formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury's Dialogues Assistant,
who grew up in Pakistan.
Paying tribute to Mr Shakir's bravery, Mr Khan recalled that
Shahbaz Bhatti, a former Minister for Minorities Affairs who had
spoken out in support of Mrs Bibi, had returned to Pakistan after a
private meeting in the UK, fully expecting to lose his life. His
prophecy had proved accurate.
Mr Shakir said that it was hard to find lawyers who were willing
to take on cases such as Mrs Bibi's. "The commitment, passion,
devotion required for these cases is lacking. Everyone is scared of
them [religious extremists]."
Rehman Chishti, a Conservative MP, also addressed the gathering.
He said that he was "certain that we can get justice in Aasia
Bibi's case", and Baroness Berridge, who spoke about the work of
the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of
Religion or Belief.
"We must not stop here," Mr Shakir concluded. "I know I cannot
conduct such a dialogue in Pakistan, but my language of resistance
continues. We will succeed, finally."
by Gavin Drake
A THOROUGH review of blasphemy laws in Pakistan should
be conducted "with a view to repealing [them]", the European
Parliament said last week.
In a long motion, the Parliament said that it was
"deeply concerned and saddened" by the death sentence pronounced on
Asia Bibi by the Lahore High Court in October (News,
17 and 24
October); and urged the country's Supreme Court to start its
hearing on the matter "swiftly and without delay".
It also called for a review of the sentences awaited by
others on death row for blasphemy, including Sawan Masih, Mohammad
Asghar, Shafqat Emmanuel, and Shagufta Kausar.
The motion draws attention to Pakistan's membership of
an EU preferential trade scheme, the GSP+, and points out that the
grant of GSP+ status "is conditional [on] the ratification and
implementation of 27 international conventions . . . most of them
on human rights, and that the EU may decide to withdraw GSP+
preferences should a country not meet its
In the debate, Dr Charles Tannock MEP (Conservative,
London) said that "the vast majority of cases are fabricated. . .
Death and prison sentences are administered by the lower
first-instance courts; and, while Pakistan has, to its credit,
never actually carried out an execution for blasphemy, significant
numbers of those accused, and their families, are forced to endure
threats of [or] actual mob violence, and . . . even public
He said that the European Parliament should "continue to
urge the authorities to . . . adhere to the constitution of
Pakistan and modern international standards by fully guaranteeing
the human rights of all people and citizens in
"There are many people in Pakistan who recognise that
there is a need for change - not just for minorities, but for all
Pakistanis, whatever their belief," the head of the Parliament's
delegation to South Asia, Jean Lambert MEP (Green Party, London),
said. "People shouldn't be facing arbitrary accusa-tion. They
shouldn't be in a situation where evidence is presented against
them which they cannot hear and which they cannot
"But we also have to realise that to argue for change
is, literally, putting your life on the line. I do wonder . . . how
brave many of us would be in those situations."
Amjad Bashir (UKIP, Yorkshire and The Humber), said: "I
strongly condemn the brutal killing of Shama [Bibi] and Shahbaz
[Masih], Pakistani Christians, by a violent mob; and other abuses
committed in the name of blasphemy. These barbaric acts cannot be
acceptable to the European Parliament, inter-national community,
and the Pakistani nation.
"I know the Pakistani nation is in a state of deep shock
and outrage. It is important to understand that these laws existed
in Pakistan since colonial times, and the majority of cases
registered under this law have been against Muslims."
Earlier, in a "blue-card" intervention to another
speaker, Mr Bashir asked whether the European Parliament was
"discussing Christian rights as opposed to Muslim rights. Let us
not make this debate Christianity versus Islam. Let's defend all
people who are targeted under these blasphemy laws. . . We are here
to defend all people of all faiths, not just
In response, Pavel Svoboda MEP, a Czech Republic member
of the Christian Democrats, said: "Based on the statistics, mostly
Muslims are targeted under the blasphemy laws; and we, in this
Parliament, are fighting for their rights as well."
Another Czech Republic MEP, Dita Charanzová, a member of
the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group, which
includes British Liberal Democrats, said that the Parliament was
faced with "various horrific instances resulting from these
"How can Pakistanis have faith in the rule of law, when
claims that are near impossible to prove can mean life imprisonment
or the death penalty?" she asked. "How can those acquitted on
blasphemy charges return to an environment that breeds hostility?
How can religious minorities feel safe in their homes, having seen
a couple beaten and burnt alive? Even lawyers who are courageous
enough to defend those charged are at risk of mob violence and
But not everybody agreed that the issue was one for the
European Parliament. Aymeric Chauprade MEP, a non-aligned member of
the French National Front, said that "arrogant human-rights
ideology" lay behind the motion; and he "cannot support more
interference by the European Union with the sole purpose of
abolishing sovereignty and paving the way for the oligarchies and
the ambitions of Europe worldwide".
The European Parliament, he said, should attend to "the
Islamisation of Europe and the extension of Islamic fundamentalism
in our own societies . . . before lecturing the rest of the