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Asia Bibi: no release without international pressure, lawyer says

05 December 2014


No release: a veiled Asia Bibi, with her lawyers, a photo taken in 2010

No release: a veiled Asia Bibi, with her lawyers, a photo taken in 2010

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 Qur'an.

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 [obligations]".

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 lynchings."

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 Pakistan."

"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 test.

"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 Christians."

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 laws".

"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 murder."

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 world."

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