NDI: Commitments for Credible Elections Needed to Reaffirm Bangladesh’s Democracy

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Dhaka, Bangladesh – Heading into Bangladesh’s elections for the Jatiya Sangsad (national parliament), a pre-election delegation of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) found that, while Bangladesh has several fundamental elements in place for holding credible elections, including a tradition of political pluralism and strong public support for democratic principles the polls will take place amid a high degree of political polarization, heightened tensions and shrinking political space.

From October 5 – 11, the delegation met with: officials in the Prime Minister’s office; party leaders from across the political spectrum; the Election Commission; civil society representatives, including citizen election observer group leaders; women members of parliament and political activists; media representatives; former government officials; business leaders; and representatives of the international and diplomatic communities.

The delegation was encouraged by Bangladesh’s vibrant media, active civil society, and growing youth and women’s activism. Concerning women, Farahnaz Ispahani, former Member of Parliament, Pakistan and Woodrow Wilson Center – Global Fellow, noted that “women play an active role in Bangladesh’s elections as voters, campaign activists, candidates, observers, and pollworkers. However, they still face a number of cultural and structural barriers in participating equally.”

The delegation heard significant concerns from election observers and opposition representatives about the Election Commission’s plans to deploy electronic voting machines in some locations. Media representatives and civil society, including citizen election observers, report intimidation by law enforcement bodies. In addition, arrests of political activists and critics of the government, as well as the passage of the controversial Digital Security Act, is fueling grave concerns that the country’s longstanding commitment to democratic norms may be at risk.

“The upcoming elections provide a critical opportunity to dispel concerns about closing space and reaffirming Bangladesh’s commitment to a democratic and competitive political process,” Karl Inderfurth, former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, said. “If the government and opposition parties enter into a genuine dialogue,’ Peter Manikas, Regional Director for NDI’s Asia programs noted, “we believe an agreement can be reached on the conditions necessary for holding peaceful, credible, inclusive, and transparent elections in which all political parties can compete on a more level playing field.”

In its statement, NDI’s delegation offered a number of recommendations that can be addressed ahead of the upcoming elections. These include, among others:

  • the government should publicly pledge noninterference in the Election Commission’s work;
  • the government should send a clear message to law enforcement bodies to refrain from intimidating party activists, civil society, and media representatives;
  • political parties should address several barriers to women’s participation, including greater investment in recruiting and supporting women for single-mandate races; and
  • political parties, civil society, and the Election Commission should engage youth more substantively to harness their activism into formal channels of electoral participation.

The delegation also urges the international community to be as generous and forthcoming as possible to Bangladesh and the United Nations in addressing the humanitarian needs of the Rohingya refugees. Left unattended and unresolved, refugee crises can have long-term political and electoral consequences.

The delegation is deeply grateful to all those with whom it met and who shared their views freely. In addition, the delegation emphasizes that it does not seek to interfere in Bangladesh’s election process and recognizes that, ultimately, it will be the people of Bangladesh who will determine the credibility and legitimacy of their elections and the country’s democratic development.

Members of NDI’s delegation included: Ambassador Karl Inderfurth, former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs and current NDI board member; Honorable Farahnaz Ispahani, author and former Member of Parliament, Pakistan; and Peter Manikas, Senior Associate and Regional Director for NDI’s Asia Programs. The delegation was joined by Michael McNulty, NDI Elections Advisor and Adam Nelson, NDI Senior Program Manager for Asia.

Link: https://www.ndi.org/publications/ndi-commitments-credible-elections-needed-reaffirm-bangladesh-s-democracy 

Why Pakistanis must speak up against blasphemy laws By Farahnaz Ispahani

Asia Bibi’s case illustrates how blasphemy laws are used to persecute the weakest of the weak among the country’s religious minorities.

After a long and tortured eight years, Asia Noreen Bibi — a poor agricultural worker, who has been sitting on death row on allegations of blasphemy — finally had her appeal heard by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. But, like many actions taken by the country’s highest court recently, the long-awaited judgment caused some consternation by not being announced.

Asia Noreen Bibi

The decision to reserve the judgment has often been the practice in high-profile political or social cases. In Asia Bibi’s case, the court is likely concerned about the anticipated reaction from Pakistan extremist Islamist groups — some of whom are already threatening adverse consequences if Bibi is acquitted. Even under Pakistan’s flawed blasphemy laws, the case against Bibi was based on contradictory testimony and should result in acquittal on appeal, in the view of most legal experts.

The Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), the influential Islamist group which won 2.2 million votes out of 40 million votes cast, and which came second or third in some key contests, beating established political parties, is leading the charge against Asia Bibi’s acquittal. Prime Minister Imran Khan gave the group its first victory by sacking distinguished Princeton University economist, Atif Mian, from the Economic Advisory Council because of his Ahmadi faith.

The TLP has made punishing blasphemy its rallying cry and lionises Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who murdered former Punjab governor Salman Taseer in January 2011 for advocating changes to Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

Salman Taseer was killed for speaking out against the blasphemy law.

The party’s leaders have now warned the Supreme Court against any “concession or softness” for Bibi and have said that there would be “terrible consequences” if, as has been suggested, Asia Bibi is allowed to proceed abroad for her safety after acquittal by the Supreme Court.

TLP leader Pir Afzal Qadri has reportedly declared that the judge who orders Asia Bibi’s release “must be killed because he is an absolute apostate” and “only an apostate can pardon a blasphemer.” In his view, evidence and the application of relevant laws are irrelevant. According to Qadri, the government “should hang” the lenient judge — otherwise “Prophet lovers would kill” him.

And there lies the peril of Pakistan’s non-debate on its draconian blasphemy laws.

Not only is someone convicted under the law punishable by death, even someone who acquits an accused person runs the risk of being labelled an apostate — it is as if an allegation of blasphemy is of itself the beginning as well as the end of the entire legal process.

Bibi, an illiterate berry picker, was convicted on the grounds of defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed. Her Muslim neighbours objected to her drinking water from the same glass as them because she was Christian. Whatever she said in response was reported by the neighbours as blasphemous, starting the poor woman’s eight-year long ordeal.

Under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, Bibi’s alleged comment is punishable by death.

In 2010, Bibi, at age 45, was sentenced to death by hanging — a decision that attracted international condemnation. Western governments and religious freedom advocates have voiced support for Bibi and in February this year, Pope Francis described Bibi, alongside a Nigerian woman who was captured by Boko Haram, as martyrs.

Caught between domestic demands against any tolerance of alleged blasphemy and international pressure for Asia Bibi’s release, successive Pakistani governments have kept her case lingering through Pakistan’s generally slow legal system. But even if she is finally spared the gallows and allowed to leave the country, Asia Bibi’s case will continue to illustrate how blasphemy laws are used to persecute the weakest of the weak among Pakistan’s religious minorities.

Can Pakistan’s Supreme Court grant Asia Bibi her freedom?

As a poor Christian from a lower caste, Bibi was among the most vulnerable and susceptible to discrimination.

And the legal system — which, in theory, should be designed to protect the innocent — failed her in every way. Threats of violence by religious vigilantes and the tendency of Pakistani leaders to bow down to extremists have made it virtually impossible to amend the unjust laws.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws date back to the military dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. In 1980, making a derogatory remark against any Islamic personage was defined as a crime under Pakistan’s Penal Code Section 295, punishable by three years in prison. In 1982, another clause was added that prescribed life imprisonment for “wilful desecration of the Quran” and, in 1986, a separate clause was added to punish blasphemy against Prophet Mohammed with “death, or imprisonment for life”.

Bibi’s case isn’t the first in which Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been used to punish minority groups. Since Zia-ul-Haq imposed the laws, their application has unleashed extremist religious frenzy.

Procedures for investigation and prosecution lend themselves to widespread abuse. Assertion by a Muslim witness that blasphemy was committed is sufficient for filing of charges and the arrest of a suspect — even without corroborating evidence. Furthermore, the testimony of non-Muslim witnesses in defence carries less weight, and, in most cases, the filing of charges is tantamount to punishment, because bail is denied.

Worse still, once blasphemy is alleged, mob violence or targeted killing becomes a possibility. According to researcher Mohammed Nafees, from 1990-2011, there were over 50 cases “wherein blasphemy suspects were either extra-judicially murdered or died in jail”.

To quote a 2016 Amnesty International report, As Good as Dead: The Impact of Blasphemy laws in Pakistan, once an individual is accused of blasphemy, “They become ensnared in a system that offers them few protections, presumes them guilty, and fails to safeguard them against people willing to use violence.”

Lawyers who dare to represent someone accused of blasphemy have also been killed. In 2014, Rashid Rehman, a distinguished human rights lawyer brave enough to represent those most vulnerable to blasphemy charges — women and children of religious minorities, people with mental disabilities, and the weak and impoverished — was shot dead in his office by two unidentified gunmen.

Meanwhile, judges who have dared to acquit an alleged blasphemer or convict the killer of an alleged blasphemer have either had to flee the country or face death. It remains to be seen whether Pakistan’s Supreme Court can change that unfortunate recent history by granting Asia Bibi the freedom she deserves.

Eventually, Pakistanis have to find the courage to confront religious extremists and subdue the passions over blasphemy that undermine their country’s capacity to protect religious minorities.

The Article was published in “dailyo” and the link to the original article is Why Pakistanis must speak up against blasphemy laws


Farahnaz IspahaniFARAHNAZ ISPAHANI @fispahani

Farahnaz Ispahani is a former member of Pakistan’s National Assembly. She is Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, DC and the author of Purifying the Land of the the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities.