A conference in Brussels called the attention on the intolerable situation of human rights and freedom of religion or belief in the Asian country.
by Hans Noot
The EU should open its ears wide to the voices of the victims of human rights violations in Pakistan and their lawyers, and reconsider its privileged commercial relations with their country, according to a group of human rights organizations from Europe and Pakistan.
On 8 May, representatives of human rights NGOs from Europe and Pakistan united their voices in a conference held at the Press Club in Brussels to sound the alarm about the increasingly repressive implementation of the blasphemy laws, forced marriages, and forced conversions of girls from religious minorities.
In anticipation of the renewal of the EU-Pakistan Trade Agreement (GSP+) in 2024, MEP Peter van Dalen expressed his concerns in a video (you can start watching his speech at minute 14’32’’) regarding the lack of human rights protection as required by the preferential trade scheme. The GSP+ allows Pakistan to save billions of euros in trade tariffs. However, it comes with expectations of certain standards regarding labor rights, good governance, climate, the environment, and human rights. The speakers of the conference made it clear that Pakistan certainly did not comply.
The so-called blasphemy laws penalize anyone who abuses or insults the prophet of Islam, his wives, companions or relatives with between 10 years in prison along with a fine of Rs 1 million Pakistani rupees (approx. € 4000) to life imprisonment and even the death penalty.
On 26 October 2022, a group of UN Special Rapporteurs issued a 16 page letter regarding the practice of forced conversions to Islam, and sexual exploitation of children, including prostitution and pornography. The document also pointed at slavery, trafficking in persons, especially women and children, as well as violence against women and girls. According to the letter the Pakistani police are often in collusion with the perpetrators. On 16 January 2023, the UN issued a press release stressing that a dozen of its Special Rapporteurs and experts were urging Pakistan to take action on coerced religious conversions, forced and child marriage.
José Luis Bazan, Legal Advisor for International Religious Freedom, Migration and Asylum, at the COMECE Secretariat in Brussels summarized the issues by explaining that “already in 2021, the EU Parliament called on the European Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) to review Pakistan’s eligibility for GSP+ status in the light of persistent human rights abuses, as the government systematically enforced blasphemy laws, and failed to protect religious minorities from abuses by non-state actors, with a sharp rise in targeted killings, blasphemy cases, forced conversions, and hate speech against religious minorities (…); whereas abduction, forced conversion to Islam, rape and forced marriage remained an imminent threat for religious minority women and children in 2020, particularly those from the Hindu and Christian faiths.”
Jonathan de Leyser, from Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) focused his remarks on forced conversions involving “low” caste Hindu and Christian underage girls. Often young girls are forced into marriage and forced to convert to Islam. The denial of such cases by government leaders and the lack of political will by the parliament give a bleak outlook for the future.
Manel Msalmi, International Affairs Advisor of MEPs of the European People’s Party (EPP) at the European Parliament, expressed her concerns about women’s rights, notably, forced marriages, honor killings, and forced conversions, lack of female school education, and consequently female job opportunities. The Human Rights Commission reports that approximately 1,000 girls are forced to convert to Islam every year, she said. As young as 12 and 13 years old, they have been abducted in broad daylight, forced to convert to Islam, and then married off to older Muslim men. In the Sindh Province the Assembly proposed a bill making this practice illegal but it was rejected. In 2021, another bill suffered the same fate. Beside these forced conversions and minor marriages issues, Pakistan is known for a stark gap between female and male school education, which afterwards puts women in a disadvantageous position on the job market and makes them vulnerable to violence and abuse.
Marco Respinti, director-in-charge of the human rights magazine “Bitter Winter,” focused on the status of Pakistan’s Ahmadiyya community. According to the Second Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1974, Ahmadis are not allowed to be counted as Muslims; Ordinance XX forbids Ahmadi to refer themselves as Muslims, or to use Islamic terms and titles. Since the passing of Ordinance XX in 1984, hundreds of Ahmadis have been killed in Pakistan, thousands have been wounded, or have lost their homes, their jobs, and their mosques. They cannot vote and declare themselves to be Muslims. If they do, they violate Ordinance XX and will be sent to jail.
Akmal Bhatti, lawyer and chairman of Minorities Alliance Pakistan expressed his concerns about an increase in hate speech and violence targeting minorities in total impunity. Pakistan adheres to a form of state-sponsored bigotry, he claimed. This causes discrimination, fear, hate, and sometimes lynching of minority members. Hate speech in school textbooks and institutional discrimination seem to be the roots of the problem. After Nigeria, Pakistan has the second lowest literacy rate worldwide. It seems that the lack of education correlates with an increase in systemic violence. Minority groups are forced into floor-sweeping jobs without health and life insurance, or without receiving compensation after a job-related accident. As a lawyer, Akmal Bhatti is banned from protecting the victims under Sharia law.
Tabassum Yousaf, High Court lawyer in Pakistan, talked about specific cases regarding forced marriage of young girls and honor killings she had worked on. People lack knowledge about their constitutional rights, she said. Litigation, she said, is hampered by the fact that many people do not have the proper documentation proving the age of their kidnapped child, thus legitimizing forced child marriages. The cost of litigation also seriously hinders receiving justice.
And in its educational system the school curriculum assumes an “us vs. you” attitude that enhances discrimination and divides society. In short, there is no implementation of the law meant to impose equal treatment on all Pakistani citizens whatever their ethnicity or religion.
Raphaël Shakeel talked about his brother Nadeem Samson who had been arrested and detained in 2017 on alleged blasphemy charges. After Nadeem’s house had been raided and his belongings burned in the street, he was tortured by the police and forced to falsely admit his “guilt.” In January 2022, he was released on bail under international pressure. He is currently in security in a safehouse provided by the family, and physically recovering from police torture. The situation has caused deep psychological, economic and financial trauma for the whole family.
Throughout the conference, a number of recommendations were made, including
- To transfer the blasphemy law cases to the courts in the capital for the protection and safety of the accused.
- To reform the National Single Curriculum and school textbooks to guarantee the neutrality of its content.
- To create a special Prosecutor/Court to protect minors belonging to religious minorities.
- To treat Ahmadis and members of other religious minorities as equal Pakistani citizens.
- To provide proper school education for boys and girls and to empower women.
- To implement the ban on child marriages, including for girls from a religious minority, even after conversion to Islam.
- To use the soft power of diplomacy between the EU and Pakistan’s government.
- To prosecute accusers of false blasphemy cases.
- To prosecute law enforcement officers who do not protect the victims of abuses.