I beg to move,
That this House has considered blasphemy laws and allegations in Commonwealth Countries.
I would first like to express an interest, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief and as chair of the APPG for the Pakistani minorities. These issues are close to my heart, and it is a privilege to speak about them and to try to outline where we wish to be. I therefore thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to discuss this timely and important topic. As always, I am pleased to see my dear friend the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), in his place. It is also a pleasure to see the Minister, and I thank her for all that she does for persecuted ethnic groups across the world.
Blasphemy laws may sound like an archaic and outdated issue, but they are far from a thing of the past. I thought long and hard about this debate, and I wanted to bring the issue forward for discussion in a positive fashion. As of 2019, 79 countries had laws or policies banning blasphemy, which included speech or actions deemed to be insulting, contemptuous or showing lack of reverence for a God or something sacred. Unfortunately, despite the Commonwealth’s values—which we adhere to—of promoting democracy, human rights and individual liberty, its members are some of the worst offenders. Of the 79 countries that prohibit blasphemy, 26 are Commonwealth states, which equates to 46% of Commonwealth members.
Yesterday was World Day Against the Death Penalty. A higher share of countries inside the Commonwealth than outside it have prison sentences for blasphemy and other legal restrictions. Regrettably, the Commonwealth also has a higher share of countries with the death penalty for blasphemy. Five Commonwealth countries have the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy, and many more have seen people murdered for them. A clear goal to work towards would be the abolishment of the death penalty for any blasphemy-related charges. While progress would still need to be made to ensure that people are not unjustly imprisoned on blasphemy charges, it would be a big step forward to know that the death penalty was not on the table.
Blasphemy laws are not always in and of themselves an issue—I want to make that clear. They can often be little more than legislation that is never utilised or that lies dormant, with no impact on a country’s people. For instance, Saint Lucia and other Caribbean states have blasphemy laws, but they are not enforced and have every likelihood of never being enforced. However, the fact that they are in place means that, sometime, they could be enacted and enforced and could become a stringent part of the law. Therefore, it is the abuse and misuse of blasphemy laws that is the issue; indeed, it is social attitudes towards blasphemy and the lack of the tolerance for other faiths and beliefs, not blasphemy laws on their own, that leads to violations of freedom of religion or belief.
I recall a visit that the APPG organised to Pakistan in 2018. It was around the time that Asia Bibi had been charged with blasphemy and given the death penalty. That deputation consisted of my colleague, the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), and Lord Alton, from the other place. We decided that if we were going to do something about Asia Bibi it was probably better not to go in with all guns blazing and say, “Blasphemy is wrong, and your constitution is wrong,” because we would get nothing. Instead, we showed how the blasphemy laws in Pakistan at that time were being used in an erroneous, vindictive and malicious way. They were also being used in an untrue and dishonest way, because the allegations were never factually or evidentially proven to be true.
We met two of the three judges—at this stage, I am not breaking any confidences, because the thing is past and over—who told us that they did not see an evidential base for the allegations that were made and were therefore of a mind to free Asia Bibi. We never said that when we came home—I talked to the then Minister and assured him that we did not intend to say anything—because we thought it was more important to have Asia Bibi released. Eventually, she was released to her family and now lives in Canada.
However, there may be other Asia Bibis in Pakistan and across the world in a similar situation, and I will refer to a couple of them. I know that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, who speaks for the Scottish National party, will also speak about some of them, because we have been on many deputations together, including one to Nigeria recently—I will refer to one case in Nigeria and I know he will do the same.
However, before highlighting cases where blasphemy laws pose a serious threat to ordinary people’s lives and are weaponised as tools for persecution, I would like to bring to Members’ attention the fact that a blanket repeal of blasphemy laws would be ill advised and that I am not seeking one. In some circumstances, calls for a blanket repeal would have the unintended consequence of removing certain protections, such as prohibiting the vandalism of places of worship. Far from advancing the fight for freedom of religion or belief, such consequences would simply create new challenges. Instead, it is vital to stress the problems with blasphemy laws and how to counter those challenges. Therefore, a blanket repeal is not the solution, but something must be done, and I hope to make some suggestions during the debate.
Unfortunately, misuse of blasphemy laws or accusations of blasphemy are one of the tools most commonly used to target religious or belief minorities around the world. They are often used as a pretext for land seizures, extrajudicial violence or discriminatory legislation. Blasphemy allegations can make a mockery of a justice system and can often fuel mob violence. They can also be utilised to settle personal vendettas, and they can be invoked more generally to target and drive out religious or belief minorities in a given country or region. There are many examples of such activities, and I have referred to some of them. The susceptibility of some blasphemy laws to such abuses is a grave challenge to freedom of religion or belief for all, with those of many different religions or belief backgrounds falling victim to the misuse of blasphemy laws, particularly in certain states of the Commonwealth.
In recent months, there have been a number of high-profile blasphemy cases, with blasphemy charges filed against Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister, and the murder of Deborah Samuel, a student in Nigeria. I was in Nigeria in May—the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute and others were on that trip—and we had a chance to discuss many issues, and the case of that young Christian girl, who I will refer to again later, was one of those we looked at. Such cases illustrate how blasphemy laws are used to restrict freedom of speech, discredit political opponents and attack religious minorities, and they also draw attention to the rule of mob violence in blasphemy allegations and how that determines the legal frameworks that are in place.
A report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom on the use of blasphemy laws found that extrajudicial violence was particularly prevalent in Pakistan, with more than half of the recorded cases of such violence happening in that country. The other significant contributor from the Commonwealth was Nigeria, which we visited just a few months ago, and I will touch on that later, as will the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute. The USCIRF report noted that extrajudicial violence is more likely to happen when persons accused of blasphemy are acquitted through the legal system or police choose not to file charges. That shows that a solution cannot be found through legislation alone but by changing attitudes in a country. I think we have to do that as well, but it has to be done in a gentle way, and I hope that we may just do that very thing through this debate.
Given the high levels of extrajudicial violence, many victims and their families receive death threats and must live in hiding, in fear of their lives, even if they are found innocent—I have referred to one such case already. In these cases, victims are unable to access asylum pathways, as they are stuck in their country of origin and cannot make a claim until they leave. One case that illustrates that scenario and sheds light on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws more broadly is that of Sawan Masih. I have raised this case in the past, as have other colleagues present today, but it is worthy of renewed attention, given that last week marked two years since Sawan’s acquittal but there has been little improvement in the situation. The Minister is always responsive to us—we all appreciate that—and I ask her to give us an update on the case today if she can. If not, I am happy for us to be notified afterwards.
Sawan Masih was a Christian street sweeper, a father of three from the city of Lahore in Pakistan. He was imprisoned in March 2013 and sentenced to death for blasphemy in March 2014. Sawan’s appeal hearing was adjourned at least 16 times, but on 5 October 2020 he was finally acquitted in Lahore High Court. He was released 10 days later, with the delay due to security concerns for his life. His father lived to hear news of the acquittal, but died before Sawan could see him. Sadly, earlier this year, his mother also passed away without seeing her son. Sawan and his family now live in a secret location, as they would most likely be murdered if their location was known.
Sawan Masih’s arrest happened only after mob violence—it was not the rule of law that led to his dire circumstances, but the abuse of the law. Local factory workers went on strike for Sawan’s arrest. More than 3,000 Muslims attacked his home village, torching 180 Christian homes, 75 shops and two churches. Sawan believes that the charge against him was part of a plot by local businessmen to seize land previously held by Christians. The fact that blasphemy laws can be manipulated in such a way is at the heart of this debate. Spurious accusations should not be a vehicle for settling personal disputes or targeting minorities who have little recourse to justice.
Sawan’s life has been irreversibly damaged by the malicious levelling of blasphemy allegations. Pakistan’s justice system has been undermined by mob rule provoked by malicious and vindictive allegations. Our asylum process has also been shown to be further flawed, owing to the fact that Sawan is still in hiding, with an ever-diminishing hope of a safe and full future for himself, his wife and his family. Regrettably, Sawan is just one of many people in Pakistan who faces such a situation. According to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, 84 individuals were charged with blasphemy in 2021, and many others remain imprisoned or on death row.
How do we prevent cases such as that of Sawan Masih? One solution, which is key to this debate, is for blasphemy laws to be amended to include reference to intentionality. In essence, blasphemy laws that stress intentionality would mean that intention to cause insult would need to be established before someone was convicted for this offence. The absence of a reference to intent in article 295C of Pakistan’s blasphemy law means that the prosecutor does not carry the burden of proving that the accused had the intention of blasphemy. Such a problem is not unique to Pakistan, but Pakistan’s more active enforcement of blasphemy laws makes an amendment ever more relevant. Moreover, a general promotion of amending laws to introduce an intentionality clause in countries where blasphemy laws are misused could dramatically improve the situation for religious and belief groups, not to mention the vigour of the law as a whole. Given that the UK is a significant giver of aid to Pakistan, the UK Government should not be backwards at coming forwards—that is a bit of an Irishism—in recommending such a change in the law, laying the groundwork for other members of the Commonwealth to do similarly. There should be no toleration of low standards of evidence for convicting somebody of blasphemy in any country, let alone one with which the UK has such close ties.
My final point about Pakistan, which is also relevant to other countries, is that cyber-laws, for example, should not be used as a back door for blasphemy laws. In November 2020, Pakistan enacted an amendment to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 that empowered the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to block or remove online content if it considers it necessary
“in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan”
or public order, decency or morality. Unfortunately, such a law enables the targeting of minorities for blasphemy-related charges. Since its enactment, six Ahmadi Muslims have been arrested owing to those laws, and 17 named in police reports.
We have made overtures to Pakistan in the past about the Ahmadi, and we will do it again. The Ahmadis are a small Muslim sect who are persecuted by other Muslims in Pakistan. Such digital persecution exacerbates the difficulties for Ahmadis and other religious groups in Pakistan, with even the online sphere no longer being a forum where they can speak or learn about their faith. With the rise in digital persecution globally, our policymakers must not be ignorant of the challenges that cyber poses and how it compounds human rights challenges around the world, particularly pertaining to freedom of religious belief.
Another country I would like to draw attention to is Nigeria. As I said, I was in Nigeria with the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute and others. It was a chance for us to seek answers on freedom of religious belief and to highlight cases, and I want to highlight one in particular. Nigeria’s legal system arguably allows for some of the most punitive sentences in any Commonwealth member state for blasphemy allegations, if cases even reach the courts to start with.
Horrifically, in May this year, a student called Deborah Samuel was stoned to death. This young Christian girl was set on fire by a mob over an alleged blasphemous comment in a WhatsApp group. Just a few weeks later, Ahmad Usman was burned to death by a mob of 200 people after he was accused of making a blasphemous comment against a cleric. Undeniably, it is not even the misuse of blasphemy laws that leads to persecution in such cases, but the devastating hostility towards those of other religious beliefs—it is mob rule and mob violence, irrespective of the issue, with allegations mostly unproven and with no evidential base whatever. Neglectful law enforcement and a culture of impunity permit such murderous acts to prevail, and only two people have been arrested so far in connection with Deborah Samuel’s murder, despite the prevalence of social media footage depicting it.
Apparently, young Deborah Samuel’s crime was to express frustration with members of the group chat for posting religious articles and to ask them to focus on the coursework at hand. Those are very gentle words, and not confrontational or difficult in any way. Some reports indicate that Deborah Samuel had rejected the advances of a Muslim student and that he made the allegations against her in retaliation. Undeniably, in such a case, it is not even about the misuse of laws, but the devastating hostility.
There should be no place for mob rule in any country. When such unlawful behaviour emerges, it should be met with repercussions. Yet, neglectful law enforcement and a culture of impunity permit such murderous acts to prevail and let mob rule and violence take prominence. Only two people have been arrested so far in connection with Deborah Samuel’s murder, despite the prevalence of social media footage. There is an abundant evidential base depicting her brutal murder.
Worse still, the two students who were arrested were charged only with criminal conspiracy and disturbing the peace—both bailable offences—rather than facing the more fitting charge of culpable homicide, which is what it should have been and what the evidential base proves. They are receiving legal representation from a team of 34 lawyers led by a professor of law. While a fair trial is a necessity—I am always for fair trials—one cannot help but wish that such legal support was provided to those falsely accused of blasphemy and facing trial in sharia courts.
While we were in Nigeria, we were very aware of how sharia law seems on many occasions to supersede the law of the land. Although the sentence stipulated for blasphemy under Nigeria’s criminal code is two years, Nigeria’s dual legal system of customary and sharia law enables sharia courts to trump federal law and impose extreme sentences for blasphemy. Rather than two years, sharia law permits the death penalty.
The religious make-up of Nigeria is split down the middle. I understand—I hope the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute will back me up—that Christians are 50% of the population of Nigeria and Muslims are 50%. It is very much a 50:50 split, so it is important that people get on with their neighbours and embrace what they say.
The sharia law penal codes in those states, coupled with the retention of blasphemy punishments in the criminal code, have served to embolden religious extremists to take matters into their own hands and misuse blasphemy laws to serve selfish and manipulative ends. One of the highest profile cases of a recent blasphemy allegation reaching the courts in Nigeria is that of Mubarak Bala, which the hon. Gentleman will refer to. We met the Nigerian Humanist Association and had discussions with the Minister responsible, and we were quite encouraged by their response. Mubarak Bala was sentenced to 24 years in prison following accusations that he insulted the Prophet Mohammed in a Facebook post. He was penalised under sections 114 and 210 of Kano state’s penal code, which aims to implement parts of sharia legislation into the civil code and merge the penal codes of other sharia states. It is very important that the law of the land is not used detrimentally, as it has been in this case. The hon. Gentleman will refer more to that.
The fact that sharia law can take precedence over the criminal code should give cause for concern, but it has not. Hon. Members and others outside this Chamber have not realised that they need to focus on that issue. Whether we agree with the person’s views or comments, I hope we all agree that 24 years in prison for a Facebook post is disproportionate, no matter who is alleged to have been insulted.
The implementation of sharia-based blasphemy laws curtails the liberty of all in Nigeria. Everyone is subject to an interpretation of the law—not necessarily the law of the land—that stands in stark contradiction to Nigeria’s constitution, which protects freedom of religion or belief and states:
“The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.”
Well, that is what it says, but the reality is different. That concerns us greatly, and more so since our deputation to Nigeria. Sharia-based blasphemy laws are contrary to that statement and affect those of other minority religious beliefs—Christians, other small ethic minority religious groups and humanists, in particular. Reasserting a rule of law that is not sharia-based should be one of the Government’s key priorities when working with Nigeria so that freedom of religion or belief can become a reality for all. What discussions have the Minister and our Government had with the Nigerian Government on that case? Have we had an update yet?
The Nigerian people are lovely, and we were welcomed royally when we were there back in May. We found them to be incredibly helpful, and we cherish and wish to hold on to our relationship with Nigeria, but as friends we also have to highlight issues that concern us, and this is one.
I want to draw out the importance of focusing on blasphemy allegations and the misuse of blasphemy laws in Commonwealth countries. Although the scale of the abuse can in some countries be significant, our role as the UK is vital. As a friend and ally, we should encourage higher standards and greater accord with human rights, with freedom of religion or belief serving as a cornerstone human right. When such states attempt to justify their blasphemy laws by pointing to dead-letter laws in the west, they are being intellectually dishonest, as the differences in the enforcement of those laws could not be further apart.
I am glad that the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2018 affirmed that freedom of religion or belief is
“essential for democracy and sustainable development”,
and that our Government and the Minister adhered to that. It would be lovely if they did more than just talk about it and instead acted as though they actually believed in it. I remind the Minister that when we trade with those countries, or give them aid, we should bear in mind that commitment and that principle, which are welcome, and repeatedly focus on human rights conditions on the ground and the true equal treatment of all religions and beliefs before the law.
I am mindful of the good work that many Commonwealth states do to promote freedom of religion or belief for all, and there is no denying the leading work done by countries such as Canada, New Zealand and others with respect to blasphemy laws, as well as their encouragement of other states to implement fair law. I believe that by working together we can make freedom of religion or belief a reality. That starts with working with those countries with which we have well-established links and a reciprocal honest relationship.
I would like to share the words of the apostle Paul, which I often use on such occasions, and which are close to my beliefs. The words from Ephesians are very clear that we should act
“with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love”.
We live in a diverse and culturally vibrant world, and it is good to have that. While it brings many joys, as it does, it sometimes means that we do not always see eye to eye, but by heeding words of patience and humility, and translating those guiding principles into law, we can grow our tolerance for one another and deepen our respect for difference. That is what the debate is all about: how we can look at the blasphemy laws and focus on those words of patience and humility, and on translating those guiding principles into law. With that comes the tolerance we have for others, and others have for us.
First, I congratulate the Minister on her appointment. I know that her interest in such subjects is profound, and I am pleased to see her in her place, as I am pleased to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton)—my hon. Friend, as we call each other. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for continually shining a spotlight on freedom of religion or belief, for securing the debate and for his excellent and detailed speech.
It is deeply concerning that in the 21st century the rights to freedom of religion, belief and expression are still severely limited in many Commonwealth countries, and that all too often blasphemy laws are used to silence people who hold minority views. I intend to focus on the use of death penalty policy in the Commonwealth. In doing so, I will be assisted by research and work undertaken recently by the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which I have the privilege of chairing. The alliance has grown to 42 countries, members and friends, and we will shortly issue a statement on blasphemy and related offences. Later this month, we will call for action across the world.
Research in Australia by Monash University examined 12 countries identified as having retained the death penalty as a lawful possibility for offences against religion. Apart from Nigeria and Pakistan, which are the two most concerning Commonwealth examples and on which I want to focus my remarks, those countries include Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, the Maldives, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. It is worth mentioning that of those 12 countries, 11 have established Islam as a state religion. The 12th country, Nigeria, has no state religion, but the 12 Nigerian states in which blasphemy is punishable by death operate a sharia law system in parallel with secular courts. In all 12 countries, sharia is cited as the basis on which the death penalty is prescribed for offences against religion, regardless of whether that penalty has been subsequently codified. We therefore have an issue, but it is one of policy and legislation as well as one of religion. That requires advocacy at different levels, including within Islam.
I will give a few short examples from Nigeria. Yahaya Sharif-Aminu was a Sufi Islamic gospel musician from Kano state who was accused of blasphemy for sending audio messages on WhatsApp in 2020. His house was burned down, and he was arrested and sentenced to death by hanging. His conviction was overturned, but he is still in danger of being convicted. As recently as August 2022, a court of appeal upheld the constitutionality of the blasphemy law in his case. His lawyer will soon appeal to the Supreme Court to call for the blasphemy law to be ruled unconstitutional.
There is a particularly disturbing case for me as a mother, although so many are. In 2020, 13-year-old Omar Farouq was sentenced to 10 years in prison for blasphemy after comments were made to a friend. Thankfully, his conviction was eventually overturned, although only on procedural irregularities.
As we have heard, the impact of blasphemy laws goes beyond the courtroom and into the community—dreadfully and fatally so in the case of Deborah Samuel Yakubu, a young teenage girl who was burned to death in Sokoto after an allegation of blasphemy in 2021. She had been accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammed in a WhatsApp classroom discussion group, although apparently she had merely thanked Jesus for helping her in an exam. All of this is happening under the watch of the constitution of Nigeria, which prohibits the adoption of any religion as a state religion. The reality, though, is that the state endorses numerous anti-secular and theocratic policies. Islam is often regarded as the de facto state religion in nine of the northern states, where the majority of the population is Muslim. Blasphemy laws in those sharia states allow the death penalty, which has affected Christians, atheists, Shi’a Muslims, artists, converts and those expressing beliefs that local leaders find offensive.
I turn now to Pakistan, which actually ratified the international covenant on freedom of religion or belief—the international covenant on civil and political rights—in 2010. However, it is ranked No. 8 in the Open Doors 2022 world watch list, and a main source of persecution comes from the strict blasphemy laws. Even though freedom of speech is guaranteed under the Pakistani constitution, it is limited by law and considerations of national security, and also by
“the interest of the glory of Islam”.
Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws have been in place in their present form since 1986, punishing blasphemy with death or life imprisonment for
“deliberately or maliciously outraging the religious feelings of any class or the citizens of Pakistan—either spoken or written.”
Over the past 30 years, nearly 2,000 people have been accused under the blasphemy laws, yet Amnesty estimates that most examples are based on false premises and lack evidence. Although the most severe punishment of execution has not been used in Pakistan to the knowledge of the international community, it is acknowledged that the laws have been used to sentence people to death and to incite harassment and violence against those accused under the law. In a judgment released by the Pakistani Supreme Court recently, the judges noted that
“many a time false allegations are levelled to settle personal scores and cases are also registered for mischievous purposes or on account of ulterior motives.”
I will not go into too much detail about some of the more high-profile cases; suffice to say that I was deeply saddened last year to hear of the case of Shagufta and Shafqat, a couple who were on death row for seven years for sending allegedly blasphemous text messages. Eventually their sentence was overturned in June last year, when it was found that neither of them could read or write. Stephen Masih spent three years in jail after being accused of blasphemy by his neighbour during an argument over a pigeon.
Surely the cases that the hon. Lady has outlined show a failing in the police investigations. For the two people who were accused of blasphemy but could neither read nor write, why did it take so long for that to be sorted out? Surely the police investigation would have sorted it out right away.
One of the problems is that many countries sign up to international covenants and rights, including of freedom of religion or belief, in their constitutions, and yet the court systems and the police investigation systems often do not apply the principles in practice. That does need to be looked at.
The social implications of Pakistan maintaining blasphemy laws cannot be underestimated in terms of mob violence, the burning of villages and the public parading of blasphemers, which are all too common. Two politicians who have advocated against blasphemy laws have been assassinated within the last 10 years. One defendant died from a gun wound after he was shot in court, when on trial in 2020.
What can be done to better respect and protect freedom of religion or belief? One of the outcomes of our London ministerial conference on FORB in July this year—I am delighted to report that no less than 88 Governments sent delegates—is to provide funding for lawyers via an organisation called Role UK, Rule of Law Expertise, to work in countries such as Nigeria to support law reform. That is exactly the kind of issue that the hon. Member for Strangford referred to.
We need to use the respect and expertise of UK lawyers in the Commonwealth to modify or repeal blasphemy, defamation of religion and other speech laws that allow for the persecution of individuals. Frequent concerns that have been expressed, such as the vague wording of such laws, lack of due process and arbitrary enforcement, need to be addressed. I am pleased to confirm that one of the “next steps” set of actions, which is being led by the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance with the aid of our experts, is to look at how legal systems can be strengthened to better reflect FORB in practice. UK Ministers should use every opportunity, including on in-country visits, to raise FORB concerns with their counterparts, including those raised in the debate today. What assurance can the Minister give me on that?
We should appeal to countries such as Nigeria and Pakistan to enact strong safeguards to ensure that individuals who take sharia blasphemy laws into their own hands are punished under law. This is a human rights issue. Sunni schools agree that only the ruler of a state should sentence people to death and that vigilantism on the basis of alleged apostasy should be punished, meaning no individual Muslim without state authority could execute an apostate. That is of relevance to Pakistan, where there is widespread violence at community level. There is a need for careful advocacy, supporting the position of many contemporary Islamic scholars, as articulated by the retired chief justice of Pakistan, S.A. Rahman:
“The position that emerges, after a survey of the relevant verses of the Qur’an, may be summed up by saying that not only is there no punishment for apostasy provided in the Book, but that the Word of God clearly envisages the natural death of the apostate…He will be punished only in the Hereafter.”
We need to urge Commonwealth countries to uphold and fiercely protect the rights of individuals to a fair trial and to ensure due process. Often the emotion of a crowd of accusers has expedited trials to the detriment of a court firmly establishing the facts. Again, careful advocacy locally led with the support of international non-governmental organisations can make an impact. We should thank organisations such as ADF, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Open Doors, CAN and Amnesty for their tireless advocacy. We should join with these NGOs in calling for the release of individuals facing the death penalty, and with the report of the UN Secretary-General on the 13 August 2020 in calling for a moratorium on the application of the death penalty for non-violent conduct such as apostasy and blasphemy, in line with the agreement of the international covenant on civil and political rights, which so many countries have signed up to, including Nigeria and Pakistan. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Thank you, Sir Charles. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair for this morning’s debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing it. I agree with him that it will come as a surprise to many people in the UK that 79 countries across the world still have blasphemy laws on their statute books, and that 26 of those are members of the Commonwealth; that is almost half of the membership. As we have heard, where blasphemy laws are in place, they are all too often used to target religious or non-religious minority groups. They are also commonly used to discriminate against ethnic minorities, to facilitate land seizures, or as a convenient way to settle personal disputes. Blasphemy laws are also often used as an excuse to legitimise extrajudicial violence, particularly when someone accused of blasphemy is acquitted through the courts or the police choose not to file charges. In those cases, blasphemy laws have given a cloak of legitimacy to the mob, which has used them as a green light or a call to arms to take matters into its own hands when it feels the judicial process is not delivering the answer it wants.
We have seen far too many cases of mob violence against individuals or minority communities, including, as we have heard from the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Strangford, the case of young Deborah Samuel in Sokoto in Nigeria in May. Because of comments she made on a student WhatsApp group, Deborah was declared a blasphemer. She was brutally beaten and stoned before being burned in a pile of tyres, while others recorded the whole sickening event on their mobile phones. Despite that evidence going viral around the world, only two students have been arrested for Deborah’s death, and they have been charged not with murder but with criminal conspiracy and disturbing the peace. It is an indication of the degree of support they enjoy that, following their arrest, the mob turned out again to demand their release from custody. Sadly, history tells us not to expect too much in the way of justice for Deborah, because the culture of impunity that usually accompanies such crimes will likely mean that the perpetrators of this awful murder face few or no consequences for their actions.
As the hon. Member for Strangford said, two weeks after Deborah’s murder we were in Nigeria. We spoke to religious groups, secular groups, charities, non-governmental organisations and regional and federal Government. Nigeria is a deeply religious country that, in numerical terms, is almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims, but there are also those who follow traditional African religions and those who have no religious faith—humanists. In a country so divided along religious lines, Nigeria’s humanists need someone to defend their corner, particularly after the jailing of Mubarak Bala, the president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, who was imprisoned for 24 years for blasphemy on his Facebook page. It is a remarkable and totally unjustifiable punishment for something that most of us would not even recognise as a crime or offence. Some of our delegation spent time with Mubarak’s wife and young child while we were in Abuja, and we promised them we would raise Mubarak’s case and the length of his sentence at every opportunity in this place. I would appreciate it if the Minister updated us with the latest from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and told us what it is doing to help secure the release of Mubarak Bala.
As we have heard from the hon. Members for Congleton and for Strangford, Nigeria is not the only senior member of the Commonwealth where blasphemy laws are being used, or where even the accusation of blasphemy can be fatal; the picture is similarly bleak in Pakistan. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Congleton raised the case of the American citizen Tahir Naseem, who in 2020 was shot dead inside a courtroom while standing trial for blasphemy. Tahir was from the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, the only religious community to be explicitly targeted by Pakistan’s laws on the grounds of its faith. Over the years, its members have been relentlessly harassed, denied their civil rights, murdered and officially declared non-Muslim. The murder of Tahir brought thousands out on to the street, not in protest but in support of his murderer, a teenager who had somehow managed to get a loaded gun through three separate security checks before shooting Tahir multiple times. Tahir was a US citizen, and the State Department was unequivocal in its condemnation, saying that he
“had been lured to Pakistan from his home in Illinois by individuals who then used Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to entrap him.”
As we have heard, arguably the most high profile case in recent years has been that of Asia Bibi, the Christian woman who in 2010 was arrested and given a death sentence following a dispute with her neighbour who claimed that she had insulted the Prophet. It took eight years for the Supreme Court to acquit her because of lack of evidence, but even then her family were forced into hiding, and a cleric put a bounty of half a million rupees on her head for anyone who would kill her. The Asia Bibi case shone a light on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, but rather than opening up the debate on their use and purpose, those who dared to question their very existence were themselves deemed guilty of blasphemy, and Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, and the country’s religious Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, were both murdered after calling for blasphemy law reform in 2011.
The stark reality is that, as Omar Waraich, head of south Asia at Amnesty International, pointed out, in blasphemy cases in Pakistan
“an accusation becomes a death sentence, whether carried out by the state or by mobs of vigilantes.”
The hon. Member for Strangford was therefore absolutely right to question how the continued existence and widespread use of blasphemy laws in so many Commonwealth countries can sit in an organisation whose own core values and principles say that it is there to support
“tolerance, respect, understanding, moderation and religious freedom”.
That blasphemy laws still exist in almost half the countries of the Commonwealth is of huge concern, but the manner in which they are being used as a tool of repression is deeply alarming, whether that is through the courts or the unofficial green light to the mob.
There is ample evidence that lawyers and judges are intimidated by the rule of the mob. We have to be part of addressing that to find a solution. I have great sympathy for the argument that we should press for immediate abolition, but the reality on the ground is much more complex and nuanced. Like so much across the Commonwealth, blasphemy legislation is a direct product of British colonialism, because we put much of the blasphemy legislation in place many years ago. The legal precedent for blasphemy laws originated here. At the time it was thought convenient to put a range of other legislation in there, too, meaning that all too often blasphemy covers much more than what we would consider to be blaspheming. Rather than reaching for the wrecking ball, perhaps we have to use diplomacy, international law and solidarity with these persecuted people to bring about positive change. That should start with the Minister calling on all Commonwealth countries who currently have people imprisoned for blasphemy to release them immediately, starting with Mubarak Bala.
The UK must play its part in offering asylum to the people, and their families, who have been accused of blasphemy and who are at grave risk of extrajudicial violence. The UK should encourage countries as they move to repeal, and we must ensure that they start to decouple all offences that are not blasphemous but that have historically been covered by blasphemy legislation. The UK should condemn unreservedly any legal system in which individuals can be accused, arrested, convicted or demonised on little or no evidence where it is clear that a personal vendetta is a motivating factor. As we work towards the eventual abandonment of all blasphemy legislation across the Commonwealth, the UK has to insist that, as an absolute minimum, no one can be convicted of blasphemy unless there is intent to cause offence, or insult can be proven, because right now people are being convicted of so-called crimes that they were totally unaware they had even committed.
The widespread use of blasphemy laws and the awful human cost that that brings with it can have no place in an organisation that claims to have the promotion of
“tolerance, respect, understanding, moderation and religious freedom”
as its core values. While I share the desire to see these laws abolished immediately, given the complexity of the situation, getting rid of them can be best achieved by supporting, pressuring, cajoling, incentivising and calling out regimes that use blasphemy laws in this way.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Charles, in the first debate after the conference recess. I thank my friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for securing this debate. His work on the issue is hugely appreciated by Members from all parts of the House. I also thank my friend, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is a known champion for freedom of religion and belief. I am glad that the conference that she and many others organised earlier this year was such a great success, with 88 Governments sending representatives. That is a tribute to her work and that of the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Gentleman opened the debate by saying that Commonwealth countries are some of the worst offenders when it comes to blasphemy laws, and that a higher proportion of them impose the death penalty for blasphemy. That should be a source of some shame to the Commonwealth. He mentioned exceptions, and I am glad that he pointed out St Lucia, which is a Caribbean island with blasphemy laws that are not enforced. Why does it need them in the first place? That is the question we should be asking.
The hon. Gentleman pointed out that the central issue is the misuse and abuse of these laws, rather than the laws themselves. That was a very important point. He told us that it had been demonstrated clearly that blasphemy laws were being wrongly applied, for example in Pakistan, where they have often been weaponised. Every speaker today has given examples of that.
The SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), rightly said that the blanket repeal of those laws may well have unintended consequences, such as the vandalism of minority places of worship. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, blasphemy laws can be and have been used to try to drive out religious minorities, and should not be used as an excuse for ditching the rule of law and ruling by mob. He concluded with something that I thought rang true for all of us, and with his permission, it is a phrase that I will quote again and again. He said that we need to “deepen our respect for difference” and that, eventually, eradicating blasphemy laws will be part of that. That is a great phrase.
We heard that the hon. Member for Congleton is worried that rights to freedom of religion and belief are still curtailed by blasphemy laws in many Commonwealth countries. There are 12 countries that still retain the death penalty for blasphemy. She mentioned Nigeria in particular, as every speaker in this debate has done. Nine states there use sharia law, which seems to invalidate the constitution and the rights it confers on citizens. She quoted many appalling examples of the abuse of blasphemy laws in Nigeria. They are contrary to the constitution of the country, which prohibits a state religion.
Freedom of religion or belief includes the fundamental right to be a non-believer. It is vital that those freedoms are protected everywhere, and that the United Kingdom uses its position to put diplomatic pressure on countries that retain such oppressive blasphemy laws. As we have heard, 79 countries in the world have laws banning blasphemy, and 26 of those are Commonwealth states; that is 46% of the 56 Commonwealth members. New Zealand and Malta repealed their blasphemy laws, but only in the last six years, which is surprising.
The main countries enforcing blasphemy laws are Bangladesh, Brunei, Nigeria and Pakistan. In countries such as Pakistan, authorities use such laws to target religious minorities and Muslim sects that are not officially respected or tolerated. Even when blasphemy laws are enforced weakly, if at all, they none the less
“in both theory and practice, harm individuals and societies”,
according to the US State Department in 2017. They are wrong in principle, and they are open to abuse. The enforcement of blasphemy laws varies significantly between countries, but the fact that they are still on the books in so many places should be a cause for concern for all of us in this House.
Let me quote article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights. I am sure we all know it, but it is helpful to reinforce it and remember what it says:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Although it is important to oppose the restriction of the freedom of expression everywhere, the UK must focus its diplomatic pressure on those Commonwealth member states that allow violence against religious minorities and atheists on the grounds of blasphemy. One example that many speakers mentioned is Pakistan, which often punishes blasphemy by death. As we know, its blasphemy laws mainly target the country’s Ahmadiyya Muslim and Christian communities, but the extrajudicial killings of those who are deemed blasphemous are particularly worrying. Far more must be done to tone down the rhetoric and ensure that any accusations are treated sensibly and in accordance with the law, as we would expect in any free society that follows the rule of law.
Let us remind ourselves of what the US State Department said in 2018:
“Among the range of universal, interdependent human rights, the freedom to follow one’s conscience in matters of religion or belief is essential to human dignity and human flourishing”.
As we have heard, many incidents illustrate the kind of extrajudicial violence that those accused of blasphemy often face. I shall remind hon. Members again of Tahir Naseem, who was shot dead in court in 2020 after being accused of blasphemy. As the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, said, in 2011 the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salman Taseer, and the country’s religious minorities Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, were also killed after calling for reform of the blasphemy law. They were only calling for reform, and yet they were murdered.
As we heard, another recent case of the disturbing use of blasphemy laws is that of Mubarak Bala, the president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria. As the SNP spokesperson said, Mr Bala was sentenced to 24 years in prison in connection with a number of social media posts, some of which were deemed blasphemous. I am delighted to hear that, as part of the delegation that went to Nigeria, the hon. Members for Argyll and Bute and for Strangford met the family and promised to do all they could to see the sentenced cancelled. Before being sentenced, Mr Bala had been held without charge for 462 days, and he was denied access to a legal team and medical care for five months. That is completely unacceptable. It does not matter what the allegation is: it is unacceptable to treat anybody who has been accused in that way.
Blasphemy laws are not just an issue for other Commonwealth countries; they have a direct impact here in the United Kingdom. The use of violence legitimised by the accusation of blasphemy contributed to the murder of Asad Shah, an Ahmadiyya Muslim, in Glasgow in 2016—a case that shocked all of us. I remember hearing the news and being lobbied by the Ahmadiyya community in my own constituency. The killer said that his reason was that Shah had made blasphemous statements. It is also in our country’s interest to do everything that we can to bring these repressive laws to an end in all Commonwealth countries. Will the Minister therefore tell us what discussions she has had with our Commonwealth partners on the use of blasphemy laws, and whether she has taken any diplomatic steps to urge those countries to remove them? Will she also tell us the Government’s view on the use—sometimes described as “misuse”—of blasphemy laws, and will she review the Government’s position on that term?
We live in a completely globalised world, and we should protect the rights of all who choose to have faith or not. The diversity of our Commonwealth friends and allies is what makes our partnership thrive. It is vital that the UK does all it can to urge countries still employing blasphemy laws to begin to drop them and finally to eradicate them.
Last week I had the opportunity to visit Morocco as an officer of the all-party parliamentary group and in my role as shadow Minister for peace and disarmament. Morocco is a very interesting country, although I know it is not in the Commonwealth. My late father lived in Tangier as a child, and my late uncle—who was Jewish as well—was the mayor of Tangier in the 1940s, during the second world war. Morocco is a country that tolerates freedom of religion and belief and has demonstrated that very clearly. Indeed, we visited St Andrew’s church in Tangier, which was given by the sultan in the late 1880s to Queen Victoria. It is a magnificent church, decorated in the Islamic style, with contributions made by the local mosque and synagogue. It was a great feeling being there.
We also had the privilege of meeting an organisation called the Rabita Mohammadia of the Ulemas. The name did not mean much to me, but, literally translated, it means “the league of scholars”—the league of Islamic scholars, of course. It was reconstituted, having lain dormant for many years, by the current monarch, King Mohammed VI. I do not think I have ever heard an Islamic scholar speak as clearly and openly about what Islam means, not just to him and all the worshippers and adherents throughout the world, but for Christianity and Judaism. Indeed, he mentioned Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism as well. It actually means freedom for all those who believe in the human spirit and in faith in God or someone above and beyond their own selves.
This man that we met in the most extraordinary premises in Rabat was a really serious scholar, who talked in philosophical terms that I do not think I have ever had the privilege to hear. I wanted to share that with Members today, because sometimes we believe that it is only Islam that is so extreme. To hear scholars like that in a country where the King has a really important place in the ummah of Islam worldwide gives one faith again in goodness and humanity, that the human spirit will conquer all in the end, and that we will be able to achieve the freedom of religious belief that we all aspire to.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I join others in expressing how grateful I am to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate and for all he does with the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. I thank all hon. Members for their insightful contributions. I will try to cover a number of the points they raised.
Let me begin by underlining the Government’s deep concern that the use of blasphemy laws undermines the right to freedom of religion or belief, the right to freedom of expression, and often the right to gender equality as well. My remarks today will cover the broad spectrum of the UK’s work on freedom of religion or belief, of which our work to tackle the misuse of blasphemy laws is an important part.
Freedom of religion or belief is the right of every person to hold any faith or belief, or none at all, and the freedom to change if they choose. It is the very foundation of a free and open society. People should not live in fear of persecution for what they hold in their hearts or how they choose to express it. For these reasons, the UK Government remain committed to defending freedom of religion or belief for all. Promoting these rights is one of the UK’s long-standing human rights priorities.
The use of blasphemy laws that undermine human rights, including freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression, is deeply concerning. The laws generally limit freedom of expression and are compatible with international human rights law in only very narrow circumstances. The Government regularly apply diplomatic pressure on countries that misuse blasphemy laws, often through private lobbying as that can be the most effective way to resolve a sensitive case or bring about longer-term change.
Hon. Members have drawn particular attention to the Commonwealth. We are proud to be part of the Commonwealth alliance, which is united behind the shared values of sovereignty, democracy and human rights. In June this year, member states reiterated those values at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kigali, where they
“noted that freedom of religion or belief are cornerstones of democratic societies.”
However, despite the agreed values, there remain counties where a person may be imprisoned, fined or even sentenced to death for leaving a religion or expressing a dissenting opinion about a religion.
As a matter of principle, this Government oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. Our position is well known to Commonwealth members, including Brunei, Malaysia, Maldives, Nigeria and Pakistan. We do not shy away from challenging those who we believe are not meeting their obligations, whether publicly or, when we believe it is most effective, in private.
Hon. Members spoke about Pakistan and Nigeria, so I will turn to those two countries. In Pakistan, we strongly oppose the use of blasphemy laws against both Muslims and non-Muslims. In June, Lord Ahmad impressed upon Pakistan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs the need to uphold freedom of religion or belief. The British high commissioner regularly lobbies the Pakistani authorities to guarantee the rights of all people, particularly the most vulnerable, including women, minorities and children. We strongly condemn forced marriage and forced conversion of Hindu, Christian and Sikh women and girls, which is an important part of our engagement with the Government. Forcing women and girls into marriage is a serious abuse of women’s rights that often robs them of the right to choose their own future.
A number of hon. Members mentioned the Ahmadiyya Muslims. We remain very concerned about the reports of discrimination and violence against religious communities in Pakistan, including the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. We continue to urge the Government of Pakistan, at senior levels, to guarantee the fundamental rights of their citizens, regardless of their belief. Some individual cases have been mentioned, particularly that of Tahir Naseem. We strongly condemn the shocking murder of Mr Naseem while he was on trial for blasphemy in 2020, and we are very clear that the perpetrators of such crimes must be brought to justice.
In Nigeria, the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and expression is enshrined in the constitution, but blasphemy is still a punishable offence under both secular and sharia law. The murder of Deborah Samuel in Sokoto state in May, following an allegation of blasphemy, was a barbaric and heinous act. I expressed my condemnation in public at the time and urged the relevant authorities to ensure that the perpetrators faced justice in line with the law. I again condemn that attack today and again urge that the perpetrators face justice. Hon. Members may be interested to know that when the Sultan of Sokoto came here to the ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief in July, he pointed to good inter-faith relations in Sokoto between Muslims and Christians, but he also underlined the point that the action was criminal and has no religious legitimacy.
I thank the Minister for her strong response on blasphemy laws, which I expected. In relation to wee Deborah Samuel, there is a strong evidential base—it is available in some media, and many people have it. Has it been reinforced to the Nigerian Government that that evidential base, which we believe to be emphatic, could be used to try people not just for some minor crimes, but for murder?
The hon. Member makes a strong point. As I said just now, the sultan of the area condemned that act as criminal. We condemn all violence against civilians in Nigeria. Christians have been victims of violence, but civilians of all faiths—including many Muslims—have also suffered devastating harm at the hands of extremist groups.
Mubarak Bala was, as Members have mentioned, arrested in 2020 for alleged blasphemy and has been sentenced to 24 years in prison. I have raised this case personally with the Nigerian Foreign Minister, to whom I have stressed that defending freedom of religion or belief—including non-belief—is a human rights priority. We are following Mr Bala’s case closely, and last week officials from our high commission in Abuja again raised his case with the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria.
I know that hon. Members have a keen interest in our broader work on such issues, so I will highlight three pieces of work. First, we are collaborating with and influencing international partners because we know that we cannot bring positive change alone. In March last year, we joined Australia and 50 other countries in a statement condemning the existence of the death penalty as a punishment for blasphemy. In July this year, we hosted the international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief here in London. I thank in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for the huge amount of work she did for that conference, which brought together more than 100 faith and belief leaders and human rights actors, and, I believe, delegations from 100 different Governments, including from around the Commonwealth. The sessions provided opportunities for participants to delve into the challenges created by blasphemy laws and their impact on freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief.
Secondly, we are actively working with multilateral organisations such as the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which is chaired very ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton.
Thirdly, we are working with the G7 and the United Nations to ensure that states uphold their human rights obligations. Just over a fortnight ago, for example, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad spoke at the United Nations urging the international community to call out Iran for systematically targeting members of minority communities, to press Afghanistan to protect minorities who are targeted for their beliefs, to challenge the discriminatory provisions in Myanmar’s citizenship laws, and to hold China to account for its egregious human rights violations in Xinjiang.
Finally, we are working hard to bring diplomacy and development together on these issues. During the international ministerial conference, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad announced that the UK will extend the hand of partnership to countries that are prepared to take action on their freedom of religion or belief challenges, including by helping with funding or expertise to implement legislative changes. A number of Members, including the hon. Member for Strangford, mentioned the need to make legislative changes in some areas. We are also working with Advocates for International Development, a UK-based non-governmental organisation, to match experts from across the UK with requests from willing Governments about implementing changes in blasphemy laws and access to justice, gender equality, health and education.
This is a complex area, but change is needed. The Government have a firm belief that no one should suffer because of what they believe or how they express their beliefs.
As I said, I have raised the case directly with the Nigerian Foreign Minister, and officials from our high commission in Abuja again raised it with the National Human Rights Commission last week. We will continue to raise it, and I will certainly let the Foreign Minister know that the case of Mubarak Bala has been raised by Members of all parties. I thank them for their support on this journey.
Thank you, Sir Charles. You are always very generous.
I thank everyone for taking part. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) not just for participating in the debate but for all she does as special envoy. She mentioned the conference at which 88 countries were represented—that tells us a lot about reaching out and grasping the importance of this. She referred to many cases in Nigeria and Pakistan, where it is not going according to plan and blasphemy laws have been used in a very adversarial manner.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) is a dear friend of mine and we speak on these issues all the time. He underlined how blasphemy laws are used to target and discriminate against ethnic minority and religious groups. It is clear that an accusation can become a death sentence.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) is always here when we have these debates—I am alongside him and he is alongside me. I thank him for his participation, and in particular for the quotation at the end of his speech. That was quite wonderful. That is where we all want to be through this debate—we want a better understanding and respect for each other. That is the way it should be.
I especially thank the Minister. It is genuinely always a pleasure to see her in her place. We had a very positive response from her on the engagement that she and the Government have with Commonwealth countries. We want not just words expressed but actions in place. I very much welcome the commitment to ensuring that the murderers of Deborah Samuel are held to account, and the Minister has had clear engagement with the Nigerian Government. I am pleased to see that the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which the hon. Member for Congleton chairs, and the G7 and the UN uphold their human rights obligations, and Lord Ahmad’s work is tremendous.
I thank everyone for their participation—particularly everyone who made constructive recommendations. We hope through this debate to make a positive movement forward. There are those across the world who have no one to speak for them. We in this House today have been that voice for the voiceless, who must have someone to respond to them. Today, this House has done just that.