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Blasphemy Law (Pakistan)

Volume 578: debated on Thursday 3 April 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Evennett.)

Madam Deputy Speaker, thank you for this opportunity to debate the application of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. I consider myself to be a passionate, strong friend of Pakistan; I want to see it succeed. It is the country where I was born and spent the first six years of my life before moving to Gillingham as a little boy, which is the constituency that I now have the great honour to represent. I also had the great privilege to serve as an adviser to Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, who lost her life during her quest to reform the country.

Pakistan aspires to be a global player and to have a greater international role, but its current blasphemy laws tarnish Pakistan’s name and reputation. Pakistan needs to implement the aspiration of its founder Quiad-i-Azam Mohamed Ali Jinnah, who said in his address to the nation at the creation of Pakistan:

“You are free, you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques, or any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed, that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”

For Pakistan to implement the aspiration of its founder, it must reform the blasphemy laws. These laws contravene international human rights standards, restricting freedom of speech and expression.

The UN Human Rights Committee has said that blasphemy laws are incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Pakistan is a signatory. They are often used to punish minority communities as well as Muslim communities and to settle personal vendettas and land disputes. The blasphemy laws were expanded in Pakistan between 1980 and 1986 by General Zia-ul-Haq, who added several clauses, including section 295C to the penal code of Pakistan, which stated that anyone who defamed the Prophet had to be killed.

While Pakistan has never yet carried out an execution under its blasphemy laws, this may change after the recent ruling by Pakistan’s Federal Shariat Court that the death penalty should be the only penalty for blasphemy, although the Government of Pakistan have so far refused to accept this direction. According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, at least 14 individuals are currently on death row and 19 more are serving life sentences, giving it the largest number of prisoners of belief.

We need to urge the government of Pakistan to address this issue head on. The blasphemy laws have been misapplied in many cases. Take the recent case of Mohammad Asghar, which has been raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) in this House. I pay tribute to the way in which she has raised that case at every level to ensure that justice is achieved for her constituent. He is a vulnerable British national with a history of mental illness and has been sentenced to death for blasphemy, having allegedly written blasphemous letters which were never posted.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, but is he aware that there is still a problem with getting even medical attention for this gentleman, who lived in Edinburgh until relatively recently and whose family lives in my constituency? He has a mental health problem, but unfortunately it appears—the Minister might wish to comment on this—that it has been difficult to get in anyone who can make a medical assessment of his state.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. She is right, because individuals I talk to and experts who deal with such matters say that if someone is put in custody under the blasphemy laws, getting access to them and providing them with medical equipment are concerns. Additionally, there is a risk to the safety of those who are remanded in custody in blasphemy cases, and I hope that the Minister will address that real concern in his response.

I know that the Foreign Office has raised the case of Mohammad Asghar with Pakistan’s high commission and the Chief Minister of Punjab, but the criminal justice process can take many years, which means that a large number of innocent victims are languishing in prison waiting for their appeal to be heard. That is true in the case of Asia Bibi, a 43-year-old Christian mother of five children who has been in prison since June 2009. She was sentenced to death in November 2010 for allegedly blaspheming the Prophet after an incident with fellow Muslim village workers because she was thirsty and drank water from a well and a cup belonging to a Muslim woman. Such a totally pathetic, illiterate cultural practice is contrary to the virtues and principles of Islam.

Pope Benedict said at the time that what had happened in Asia Bibi’s case was unacceptable and called for her release. Her case is still awaiting an appeal before the Lahore High Court, but the proceedings have been postponed several times. On 24 February and 17 March, the hearing was cancelled when one of the two presiding judges failed to attend. On 26 March, the counsel for the complainant failed to appear. Perhaps at the next scheduled hearing, on 14 April, justice will be rightly done in this case. It is in the interests of justice and the credibility of Pakistan’s judicial system that the case is heard at its next listing and a judgment is made on the evidence before the court.

Even if Asia Bibi is released, her and her family’s lives will be at risk. Her family has already gone into hiding after receiving death threats. In Pakistan, even an accusation of blasphemy can be enough to precipitate violence against the innocent.

I commend my hon. Friend for securing the debate. It is imperative that ordinary citizens have faith in the justice system. Unfortunately, those afflicted by injustice are not only the victims, but lawyers and witnesses. The date of 2 March marked the third anniversary of the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, the then Minister for Minorities in Pakistan and the country’s only Christian Cabinet member. I understand that although a suspect has been detected, his trial has been jeopardised by death threats to lawyers and witnesses. Does my hon. Friend agree that the international community should be pressing strongly for justice in this high-profile case, because what would impunity for Shahbaz Bhatti’s attacker say about the prospects in Pakistan for a plural and tolerant society in which diverse religious belief is honoured and respected?

I fully concur. It is right and proper that, in any civilised, democratic country, lawyers and the judiciary must be able to do their jobs without harassment. Judges must be able to deal with cases impartially and fairly, so I agree that it would be a dark stain on Pakistan’s legal system were there not justice in the case of Shahbaz Bhatti.

Linked to that—my hon. Friend will understand this point—is the case of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab who raised Asia Bibi’s case, who was shot dead by his bodyguard four years ago. The bodyguard has still not been sentenced. Why was that case not tried in the terrorist courts, rather than the civil courts, as Pakistani jurisdiction allows? Questions must be asked about why sentencing has not been dealt with in that case, even though the governor was clearly murdered.

There have been too many cases in which those acquitted have faced the violence of the mob, for example when two Christian brothers were gunned down outside a court in Faisalabad, or in June last year when Ghulam Abbas, a Sunni Muslim, was pulled from a police station, beaten to death and his body burned, or even the case of an elderly man who was shot dead in Punjab after being released from prison. Blasphemy cases can also trigger rioting, as with the case of Sawan Masih. As The Times reported, when he was sentenced to death for insulting the Prophet during a conversation with a Muslim friend, a mob burned dozens of Christian homes and set fire to two churches.

While Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have received international criticism, reform has received less attention in Pakistan because of the risks involved in raising such issues. Those who have spoken out, such as the Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and the politician Salmaan Taseer, have found their own lives sadly cut short.

Does my hon. Friend know whether the UK has linked the considerable amount of aid we give Pakistan to the blasphemy laws in any way?

I do not know whether the development aid we give Pakistan is linked to its blasphemy laws, but I know that it is spent on education, which is crucial for changing hearts and minds and ensuring that Pakistan becomes a tolerant society. Those who might drift into radicalisation or extreme values can then be given hope and opportunities through education.

The violence and assassinations do not mean that reform is impossible. Although repeal might be difficult in the short term, changes could be made so that the laws are dealt with by the higher courts, rather than the lower courts, which are more susceptible to intimidation. Specialised prosecutors and specifically trained judges should also be appointed to deal with blasphemy cases. As Pakistan has specialised terrorist courts, there could be specialised courts for blasphemy cases.

There should also be a body in the Ministry of Law to authorise prosecutions so that once an allegation has been made to the police, the matter is referred to the federal body in the Ministry before a charge is filed. That way, all the facts and evidence can be assessed before the individual is charged, because once an individual is charged it can take a very long time for the case to be heard, and in the meantime the individual is remanded in custody, which poses safety concerns, as many individuals awaiting blasphemy trials have been killed in prison.

In 2012, while on a visit to Pakistan, I met President Zardari, Rehman Malik, the Interior Minister, and members of the Christian community. The Christians raised real concerns about the application of the blasphemy laws leading to the persecution of the Christian community. When I spoke with 12 High Court judges and a Supreme Court judge and asked why the laws were being abused in Pakistan, sadly some of them said that there was no abuse of the laws, which raises real concerns about the impartiality of the judiciary in these cases.

The Minister might well say that the Government have raised these issues, and the individual cases, with the Pakistani Government, and that they have a close relationship with that country but can do no more than push for reform. I know that the United Kingdom has a close relationship with Pakistan, that the Government are working to strengthen and deepen it, and that there is real influence there.

I attended many Foreign and Commonwealth Office meetings while working with Benazir Bhutto from 1999 to 2007, including meetings with the British high commissioners to Pakistan, Pakistan desk officers at the FCO, and the then FCO director for South Asia, as well as meetings with Foreign Secretaries, including the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and the former right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband). In those meetings, everyone was focused on seeing a transition to democracy in Pakistan.

The United Kingdom had a key role in bringing democracy to Pakistan. If the UK can do that, then it can play a key role in pushing for reform of these laws in Pakistan. I recently met Pakistan’s high commissioner to the UK to make the case for reform. There is also an opportunity for the Government to press these concerns during the forthcoming visit to the UK by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that this issue will be raised with Prime Minister Sharif.

I also urge the Minister to work with experts such as the former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, who was also Bishop of Riwand in Pakistan, and who has written and spoken extensively on how these reforms can be made. Bishop Michael recently met Prime Minister Sharif to raise this matter. I would be grateful if the Minister were able to arrange during Prime Minister Sharif’s visit a meeting between him and Members of Parliament who have expressed concern about these laws, and to ensure that experts in this area such as Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali are present.

When people have been acquitted in blasphemy cases, they often face the prospect of being killed when they are released from prison. Will the Minister consider working with other countries to accommodate individuals who have been prosecuted or persecuted for their conscience and freedom of belief and expression?

Promoting respect for human rights and freedom of religion and belief should be an integral part of our foreign policy towards Pakistan. Pakistan needs to reform the outdated blasphemy laws that tarnish its name and deprive its people of their basic human rights. I understand that the people of Pakistan themselves have suffered as a result of radicalisation and being a front-line state in the war on terror in Afghanistan. However, the Government of Pakistan must reform these laws, not only because they tarnish their reputation but because it is the right thing to do, for these laws are bad laws. I look forward to hearing from the Minister in relation to this matter.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on securing this debate. He spoke with passion, sincerity and very detailed knowledge. It was clear that he has a great love for Pakistan and its people and wants to see Pakistan move further towards the human rights of all its citizens being properly recognised and safeguarded.

I also want to acknowledge the interventions by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) and my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). The cross-party nature of these interventions will have demonstrated to anyone observing our affairs that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, particularly in relation to the use of the death penalty, concern the entire House and no particular party or faction.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham knows, my noble Friend Baroness Warsi has raised this issue in many conversations with senior members of the Pakistani Government, who are in no doubt about the concern that we attach to human rights in Pakistan and, in particular, to the issue of blasphemy as an offence.

In the past 15 years, an estimated 1,274 people have been charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The fact that I can contrast that total with just nine reported cases that we know of between 1929 and 1982 demonstrates the importance of this issue and why my hon. Friend was right to draw the House’s attention to it today.

On the specific cases raised by hon. Members, I assure the House that we have made representations at the highest level. We continue to do so, and to do whatever we can to ensure that those who are facing charges or trials are treated properly and with respect for their human rights.

I say to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East that I am advised that Mr Mohammad Asghar has had a mental health assessment but has not yet been seen by the specialist whom his defence lawyer would like. We continue to do what we can and remain in contact with his lawyer to try to make sure that representations are being made by his legal team to have his mental health concerns taken fully into account in future proceedings.

To answer my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire, we do not link our aid programme to Pakistan directly to progress on this issue, but we design the programme in a way that helps to improve both the cultural understanding of the importance of human rights and the observance of human rights in practice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham pointed out that a great proportion of our aid to Pakistan is directed at improving education there. The figures show that roughly one in 10 of all children in the world who are without any schooling live in Pakistan. Raising education opportunities is one important way in which to help bring about the sort of social change we wish to see there. Another element of our aid programme to Pakistan is directed towards giving particular help to people from minorities within Pakistan, to enable them to understand their rights and to have greater opportunities in Pakistani society.

Although it is important that the relationship between the United Kingdom and Pakistan is a broad and deep one, founded on history, human contact, development assistance, trade and a common need to resist terrorism, it is also important that that relationship is such that we can speak frankly to our Pakistani friends in Government about the kind of human rights problem that we have been debating tonight. To impose a death penalty for blasphemy is a breach of the international covenant on civil and political rights and of the universal declaration of human rights, to both of which Pakistan has subscribed.

At the risk of stating the obvious, these are Pakistan’s laws and it is only Pakistanis and the Pakistan Government and legislative bodies that can deliberate upon and make changes to the laws. As an external partner to and friend of Pakistan, we try to calibrate the language that we use in public about both individual cases and the general problem so as not to make things worse for people who might be at risk of persecution. There is no doubt that extremists within Pakistan are keen to look for any alleged evidence of western interference in their country.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham said, the space available for open debate in Pakistan about blasphemy—let alone campaigning—has become severely restricted over the past 20 years or so. It is important to recognise that although we are safe to debate this problem in this place or to discuss it with our constituents, men and women in Pakistan face abuse, threats, lynch mobs and even death for questioning the laws of their country in an equivalent way. We need to be careful about rushing to condemn people for at times being unwilling to stand up in public to tackle the iniquities of these laws when they would take severe risks upon themselves by doing so.

It is also evident, however, that the blasphemy laws are open to abuse for personal gain, typically in commercial disputes. Although used predominantly against other Muslims, it is true that they are also used to persecute religious minorities, especially Christians and Ahmadis. The Government believe that is an intolerable abuse of freedom of religion and belief, and we must ensure that our objections to it and our wish for reform are clearly stated.

This matter is a key part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s human rights work bilaterally, with the EU and in other multilateral organisations. My noble Friend Baroness Warsi has led the way in raising the profile of religious tolerance, both in this country and in countries overseas, including with the Pakistani leadership.

Sadly, many in Pakistani society face death threats, including journalists, minorities, Ministers and officials. Only last weekend, we were shocked to hear of an attack on Raza Rumi, a journalist and commentator known for speaking up for democracy and human rights. He survived, but tragically his driver died. Our high commissioner in Islamabad noted:

“Mr Rumi has repeatedly spoken up for democracy and, in a democratic society, everyone has the right to speak up for their beliefs without fear of attack. We are committed to supporting the Government of Pakistan in encouraging an atmosphere of tolerance, where debate can flourish.”

He ended by sending a message of support to Mr Rumi and his fellow journalists across Pakistan who stand up for free expression in the most incredibly difficult circumstances.

The Minister outlines a scenario in which those who talk about democracy and tolerance pay the price, or nearly pay the price, with their death. Shahbaz Bhatti lost his life because he wanted reform in Pakistan. Does the Minister agree that it is important that we in the UK urge Pakistan to ensure that those who have committed such horrific murders are brought to justice? On Shahbaz Bhatti’s case, if there can be no justice for a federal Minister who is a Christian, what hope is there for ordinary minority Christians, Sikhs and Hindus in Pakistan?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Whenever we make representations on individual cases, we address not only alleged abuses of human rights—such as the withholding of access to medical treatment—but the right of any individual to due and impartial legal process, including proper legal representation.

For all the reasons I have given, Pakistan remains listed as a country of concern in the FCO’s annual human rights report. The 2013 report will be published next week, on 10 April, and I urge Members to take note of what it says about Pakistan.

Last August, Human Rights Watch noted the “impressive gains” made in Pakistan since the restoration of democracy in 2008, but warned that those gains could be lost unless the Government halted serious human rights abuses. We agree.

It is true that no person convicted of blasphemy has yet been executed, and so far all death penalties imposed under blasphemy have been quashed by a higher court on appeal. However, hundreds of alleged blasphemers remain in jail pending the appeal of their original convictions and, regardless of the outcome of those appeals, the power of mob justice has made intolerable the lives of many of those against whom blasphemy has been alleged. We understand the cultural difficulties and why blasphemy is regarded as so offensive, but we must continue to pursue the issue with visitors from the Pakistani Government to this country, as well as through our contacts in Pakistan.

It is not within the gift of Her Majesty’s Government to organise the meeting for which my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham asks, but we will put his proposal to the Pakistani Government. I certainly hope that Prime Minister Sharif will find time during his visit to have discussions with Members of this and the other place on a wide range of issues, including human rights abuses, one egregious example of which has been the focus of this debate. I hope that we and our Pakistani friends can support a debate, a review and, above all, a long overdue reform of a dangerous and iniquitous abuse of human rights.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.