Pakistan: Religious Minority Rights; challenges for a new Government in Islamabad
By Zimran Samuel, Barrister, Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales
Pakistan’s recent elections could prove to be a pivotal moment in the development of democracy and the rule of law in the country. It was the first democratic transition of power in the country’s history. The treatment of minorities and religious freedom generally will present an important challenge for Pakistan’s newly elected Nawaz Sharif.
Indeed real change is urgently needed. Non-Muslims can currently contest general seats in the elections. However when it comes to the 10 seats reserved for minorities in the National Assembly, those are allocated on the basis of selection rather than election. The result is far from satisfactory, as those selected into these reserved seats are not accountable to the people and seldom stand up for bringing about real change. Representation of Pakistan’s Christians and Hindus in the National Assembly has historically been poor. However the situation for other minority groups is even worse. Not only are the four million Ahmadis excluded from voting in elections, other Muslim voters are also made to sign a declaration on the reverse side of the voting form, rejecting the founder of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community as a false prophet.
Nawaz Sharif has previously spoken of the importance of minority rights in Pakistan. Indeed he recently stated that the term ‘minority’ should not be used as it gives a negative impression. However a debate about the usage of such words seems to my mind side-stepping the substantial issues affecting such groups across the country.
Pakistan, which has the most draconian blasphemy law in the world, has over recent years experienced an increase in sectarian violence directed towards religious minorities, in particular the Shi‘as, Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus. Such violence was ever present in the build up to the recent elections.
The blasphemy laws originate from the time of the British Empire in 1860 and have been developed gradually. Perhaps most controversially, Article 295-C of Pakistan’s Penal Code imposes life imprisonment on or the death penalty for anyone who ‘‘defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)’’. Other parts of the blasphemy law disallow the Ahmadis from referring to themselves as Muslims in name or behaviour.
The majority of blasphemy cases appear to have been based on false accusations stemming from property issues or other personal or family vendettas rather than genuine instances of blasphemy; far too often the immediate result of such an accusation is vigilante violence in which entire communities are burnt to the ground.
Pakistan has come under widespread condemnation from international human rights groups for its rigid implementation of the blasphemy laws and the manner in which these laws are regularly misused against members of minority groups. As Nawaz Sharif debates the term ‘minorities’, there remains good reason to be skeptical of his ambition for more substantive change. When Sharif was first elected Prime Minister in early 1991, he refused to appeal the decision of the Federal Shariat Court which had ruled that the penalty for blasphemy should be the death penalty rather than the possibility of imprisonment.
The Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC), which is the international human rights arm of the Bar Council of England and Wales, has also long expressed concern in relation to Pakistan's blasphemy law. A further area of discrimination over recent years is the worrying practice of forced marriages and forced religious conversions of those from minority religions. In February this year I undertook a research visit to Pakistan on behalf of the BHRC to better understand the why this a growing problem. Visiting on behalf of the BHRC, which monitors human rights abuses around the world, allowed me to discuss this concern with parliamentarians across the political spectrum as well as lawyers, diplomats and human rights organisations who have long campaigned on these issues.
Cases involving alleged forced conversions predominately emanate from the Punjab and Sindh provinces and can be correlated to gender-based violence. In a typical situation a young Christian or Hindu girl form a poor economic background is abducted and forced to proclaim that she has accepted Islam and wishes to marry her captor.
Although there are many genuine religious conversions in Pakistan and instances where the use of overt force is not involved, incidents of forced conversion are undoubtedly taking place. During my visit to Pakistan the Prime Minister's Advisor on Human Rights at the time, Mr Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, conceded that such incidents are indeed a real problem in parts of Pakistan and are of a growing concern.
An ongoing difficulty some minority communities in Pakistan face (including the Hindu, Sikh and Baha’i communities) is discrimination arising because there is no mechanism for registering their marriages. This often means that married couples from several minority groups do not have an official marriage certificate. As a result, several practical problems can arise, such as acquisition of passports by married women. The current procedure requires married couples to make individual petitions to the courts for their marriages to registered and recognised. Moreover, the lack of a satisfactory mechanism for registering marriages directly affects the problem of forced conversions and forced marriages. The inferior status given to Hindu marriages means that a marriage to a Muslim following a ‘conversion’ is given priority. Women who have been allegedly forced to convert find themselves unable to prove that they have already been married under another religious ceremony. One of my main observations while in Pakistan for the BHRC was the urgent need for the Government to introduce a family law for marriages within the Hindu and other religious minority communities to be recognised.
Specific training for police officials in Sindh and Punjab is also much needed so that existing investigations into the abduction of girls from the religious minority communities can be more effective. Such training is crucial if the authorities are to ensure that the kidnappers do not have supporters and sympathisers within the police.
While traveling across Pakistan it is became clear that there is evidence linking intolerance towards religious minorities to the syllabus in school textbooks. Some school textbooks teach school children that non-Muslims are enemies of Islam or are inferior. The school curriculum therefore directly discriminates against minorities. Following the 18th amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan in April 2010, powers in relation to the school syllabus have been devolved to the provincial authorities. In June 2012, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, stressed during her visit to Islamabad that Pakistan’s commitment to universal primary education must be accompanied by a reform of the school curricula to better promote tolerance with regard to religious minorities. Navi Pillay stated,
‘‘The Government has informed me that it is undertaking a study to identify elements in the school curricula which incite discrimination against particular religious groups and minorities.....’’
Little was subsequently done by the previous Government to address this issue and it seems that limited progress can be made without such fundamental reform.
The result of the intolerance institutionalised and taught even at school level is reflected in the difficult atmosphere within which legal professionals operate in Pakistan today. A widespread climate of intimidation has developed such that persons involved in the issue of blasphemy or forced conversions in any way, including the legal professionals who prosecute, defend and preside over such cases, are forced to either flee the country or to live in Pakistan in a permanent state of fear for their own lives and the lives of their families. When the Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer was assassinated due to his support and association of reform to the blasphemy law, the authorities found it difficult to find a prosecutor and a judge willing to take part in the proceedings because of fears as to their security. Judge Pervez Ali Shah who eventually dealt with the case has since fled Pakistan due to threats to his own life.
In cases of alleged forced conversion the intimidation of the judiciary is equally apparent. Often when a girl is recovered from her captors and taken to a court to verify whether she has converted of her own free will, the courtroom is packed full of people shouting slogans in support of the alleged conversion; there is often gun fire outside the court building to celebrate the ‘conversion’ to Islam. Judges and lawyers acting in such cases are also put under huge public pressure. It is under this climate that young girls are asked to attest whether they have truly converted to Islam.
In September 2012 a panel constituted by Pakistan’s National Assembly recommended legislating on forced religious conversions. Their report held local police officers, tribal chiefs and politicians responsible for not helping minorities recover their kidnapped community members. Sadly there has been little progress since then and it remains to be seen whether Nawaz Sharif’s new Government will demonstrate any appetite for dealing with forced marriages, forced conversions and indeed the blasphemy law.
Pakistan’s founding Father, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, famously declared on the eve of independence in 1947,
“You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places 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.”
A significant challenge remains for Nawaz Sharif if that aspiration is to be realised in today’s Pakistan.