Pakistan's blasphemy laws threatening EU relationship

Pakistani government's approach to religious discrimination is incompatible with human rights commitments, writes Barbara Matera.

By Barbara Matera

08 Oct 2014

For years now, the international community and human rights activists within Pakistan have been trying to draw the attention to minorities' rights in the country and the use of the blasphemy laws by hardline groups as a tool to oppress and prosecute minorities.

In the most recent incident, a 70 year old British citizen of Pakistani descent who had been sentenced to death on blasphemy charges was shot by his guard in a high security prison.

Earlier, in late July violence erupted in the town of Gujranwala, 140 miles south-east of Islamabad, after a rumor spread that a young man of the Ahmadi community had posted 'objectionable material' on Facebook.

According to reports from the incident, a crowd of 150 people went to the police station demanding the registration of a blasphemy case against the accused, and as police were negotiating with the crowd another mob attacked and started burning the houses of Ahmadis. Homes were looted, their belongings were dragged to the street and lit on fire, and gunshots were also reported.

"Pakistan's blasphemy laws have… fostered a climate of religiously motivated violence, and are used indiscriminately against both Muslims and non-Muslims"

The most tragic consequence of the religious violence though was the loss of human life. The mob killed an Ahmadi woman and two of her granddaughters, a seven-year-old girl and her baby sister. None of the three were in any way related to the blasphemy accusation. According to witnesses, the police stood by without interfering in the incident.

Ahmadis have faced prosecution under Pakistan's blasphemy laws as well, which carry the death penalty for insulting the prophet Muhammad. According to the 2014 annual report by the US commission on international religious freedom, there are 17 Pakistanis on death row for blasphemy. Even the accusation often results in mob attacks and lynching. Human rights activists in Pakistan say the laws are often used to persecute minorities or settle personal and financial issues.

In May, a group of 68 lawyers was charged with blasphemy charges. Lawyers themselves regularly become targets because they defend those accused of blasphemy. Christians also often face aggression, last year a 3000 person mob burned about 200 Christian homes in Lahore.

According to Amnesty International, while purporting to protect Islam and the religious sensitivities of the Muslim majority, Pakistan's blasphemy laws have instead fostered a climate of religiously motivated violence, and are used indiscriminately against both Muslims and non-Muslims. They violate the basic human rights of freedom of religion and thought. According to the United Nations' human rights committee, blasphemy laws are incompatible with human rights commitments, and more specifically the international covenant on civil and political rights

The dangers created by this long standing legal framework are serious. Yet developments such as the rise of a new leadership in Pakistan willing to enact reforms aimed at protecting minorities and establishing a higher level of EU-Pakistan cooperation has created a fertile landscape for reform. However, this relationship is dependent upon the Pakistani government implementing a series of human rights treaties. Europe will be there to support Pakistan, but will only allow that support to materialise into actual policies if Pakistan first realises that it can no longer ignore the situation with regard to religious discrimination.

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