Asma Jahangir – The voice of Pakistan’s voiceless by Farahnaz Ispahani & Husain Haqqani

Asma Jahangir will be remembered for her conviction and courage

 Asma Jahangir will be remembered as a fearless advocate for the rule of law and human rights. She challenged the notion that religion or national security were sufficient grounds to ignore the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the time of her death on February 11, Asma served as the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, documenting the injustices and atrocities of Tehran’s clerical regime.

Taking on her father’s mantle

Asma said it was her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, who inculcated in her the belief in civil liberties. Jilani resigned from his position as civil servant in Pakistan to protest against the country’s first military coup in 1958. One of Asma’s memories as a teenager related to an assassination attempt on her father at their Lahore home, instigated by Pakistan’s security services in 1965. Her father was not hurt, but an opposition parliamentarian was injured and a journalist visiting the Jilani home at the time was killed. Jilani was in and out of jail for much of Asma’s early life, refusing to give in to the two military dictators he confronted.

Asma took on her father’s mantle of opposing dictatorship when, at a young age, she petitioned Pakistan’s Supreme Court against her father’s detention under martial law. She won the case when the court ruled in 1972, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, against the legality of a military coup. The ruling did not change the course of Pakistan’s history though, and within five years, another military dictator had taken over, duly endorsed by another pusillanimous Supreme Court.

The Islamist military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq during the 1980s shut down most opposition. It was during this period that Asma emerged as an icon of resistance to obscurantism and oppression. She co-founded the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, bringing international attention to the rights of Pakistan’s oppressed ethnic and religious minorities, women, children, and political dissidents. She also played a critical role in organising the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), which opposed General Zia’s legislation aimed at rolling back most of the rights that women had achieved in the modern era. WAF organised demonstrations against attempts to reduce a woman’s testimony’s worth in certain legal matters to half the evidence offered by a man, among other things.

Images of Asma, whether staring down armed police or being beaten by them while being dragged to prison, became the symbol of opposition to the Zia dictatorship and appeared on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. General Zia’s hand-picked unelected Parliament (called Majlis-e-Shoora) retaliated by passing a resolution accusing her of blasphemy and calling for her to be sentenced to death. The basis of the accusation was a comment that she had allegedly made in a WAF meeting. General Zia set up a commission to investigate the allegation.

After General Zia’s death, Asma continued to oppose Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, the harshest in the world, as well as other violations of human rights in the country under weak civilian governments, while also advocating civilian supremacy over Pakistan’s all-powerful military. She refused to accept political office under civilian governments, arguing that her work was in the streets and courts, and that she did not wish to be encumbered by the compromises that are necessary in politics.

Her struggle against military dictatorship and Pakistan’s deep state continued through the rule of General Pervez Musharraf, from 1999 to 2008. After the restoration of some semblance of civilian rule, Asma focussed on exposing generals and judges who interfered with the democratic process through behind-the-scenes manipulation. She withstood threats against her and her family, as well as the hazard of vigilante justice orchestrated by religious zealots.

Against blasphemy laws

Asma secured an unprecedented acquittal for an 11-year-old Christian boy, Salamat Masih, and his uncles who had been wrongly accused of writing blasphemous words on the wall of a mosque in a small town near Lahore in 1993. One of the uncles, Manzoor Masih, was killed outside the District and Sessions Court in Gujranwala during the initial hearing of the case.

Asma represented Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih when they appealed before the Lahore High Court against their conviction by the trial court. Although she won acquittal for both of them from the Lahore High Court in 1995, Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti, who gave the decision, was assassinated in the chambers of the Lahore High Court in 1997. The case highlighted the inherent injustice of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Asma remained undeterred by the continued threats of violence to her opposing these laws, as well as discriminatory laws against the Ahmadiyya sect, until her dying day. She earned recognition as a competent and capable lawyer, unbothered by formalities and considerations of her status. Her sense of justice and fair play was matched by her sense of humour in the toughest of times.

One could see her hopping on to the back of a motorcycle, if her car was stuck in traffic, to get to an urgent hearing at the Supreme Court for victims of enforced disappearances. She slept on the floor, with some books under her head as a pillow, on a trip to investigate extrajudicial killings in Balochistan.

Asma Jahangir will be remembered by Pakistan’s oppressed and dispossessed as a woman with a huge heart, the simplest of tastes, and great conviction and courage, who gave voice to that unfortunate country’s voiceless.

Farahnaz Ispahani is Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and served as a member of Pakistan’s Parliament. Husain Haqqani is Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and was Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2011

The Article was published by “The Hindu” with original link

The flight and fight of political exiles


Three South Asian leaders unpack their experience of living in distant lands with the constant urge to return

The difference between migrants and exiles is that exiles don’t unpack their bags, said Mohamed Nasheed, the former President of the Maldives, who has been living in exile since 2016. “And I don’t want to unpack my bag. I want to return back.”

In the opening panel discussion on “Exile: the challenges of leading from afar” at The Huddle, Mr. Nasheed, Farahnaz Ispahani, a Pakistani politician and human rights activist now living in Washington, DC, and S.C. Chandrahasan, a Sri Lankan human rights activist who worked with refugees who streamed into India since the anti-Tamil violence of 1983, shared their individual stories of flight and the hopes and interventions that keep a leader in exile going.

The exile’s condition is unique. Introducing the subject, the moderator, N. Ram, Chairman of The Hindu Group, noted that a migrant left for a better life, a refugee for safety, and an exile in order to return some day.

In a sense, the possibility of return for the leader of conscience in exile was associated with the cause of his or her disruptive flight being addressed, of the homeland being a better, kinder place.

Indian intervention

For Mr. Nasheed, it’s the eventual triumph of democracy — and with the political crisis deepening in the Maldives, he made a strong pitch for greater Indian intervention.

For Ms. Ispahani, a former MP in Pakistan and author recently of Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities, it’s the safety and enfranchisement of the country’s minorities. This is her second spell in exile, the first being during the regime of Pervez Musharraf, and this time she said, “There will perhaps be no going back.” There has been a “soft coup” in Pakistan, she said, arguing that Nawaz Sharif’s removal as Prime Minister, upon disqualification by the Supreme Court, was “unconstitutional”.

But the call to action remains as valid, she said, of “keeping people’s dreams alive for a better day”. She works with activists and exile-seekers back home: “We are people they turn to when they need visas.”

For Mr. Chandrahasan, who returned to his Colombo home in 2011 after a 27-year exile, that return coincided with the ongoing rehabilitation, post-2010, of refugees and political reconciliation. His time away, in effect, was spent with those hunted out of their homes in Sri Lanka, to work for their care and to insulate them from extremist elements while they were in India.

An exiled leader, however, cannot be insulated from her people back home. If today there is WhatsApp and social media to keep communication going, said Ms. Ispahani, Ayatollah Khomeini used smuggled letters to reach his supporters in Iran, and Benazir Bhutto used her BlackBerry to keep in touch with leaders and workers of her Pakistan People’s Party.

Yet, conceded Mr. Chandrahasan, there is no denying the toll it takes on the exiled leader’s family. That is a “bigger challenge than anything”, added Mr. Nasheed. But he noted: “You get your strength by what’s happening at home … and wishful thinking.” He said he must fight today so that in the future his daughters could not be tortured as he was. Or as Ms. Ispahani pointed out, in exile you must keep alive ideas that are repressed back home.

Link to original post published by The Hindu –

Persecution in the Land of the Pure by FARAHNAZ ISPAHANI

After years of neglect, the State Department is finally responding to Pakistan’s dismal record on religious freedom. The time is ripe for more serious action.

This past Monday, a student in Pakistan shot his high school principal dead after being reprimanded for skipping school to attend a sit-in organized by one of Pakistan’s Islamist parties. The killer argued that the principal had committed blasphemy by questioning his right to attend the sit-in condemning “blasphemers.”

The sit-in had been organized by Tehreek-e-Labaik-ya-Rasool-Allah (TLYR), or the Movement for the Call of Allah’s Prophet—only the latest addition to Pakistan’s pantheon of extremist groups. The party opposes any change in Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy laws, demands full implementation of sharia law, supports institutionalized discrimination against religious minorities, and describes vigilantes who kill those accused of dishonoring Islam’s prophet as heroes. It was created by clerics supporting the killer of a governor who had spoken up for a poor Christian woman condemned to death for blasphemy, and who had called for reform of the blasphemy laws. And along with the many other extremist groups which share its sympathies, it has morphed into the Frankenstein’s monster of Pakistan, fostering an environment that encourages violence in the name of Islam, exalts those acting against “blasphemers,” and uses the world’s harshest blasphemy laws to mistreat religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus, and Ahmadis.

Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department finally included Pakistan on a special watch list for “severe violations” of religious freedom, after years of ignoring recommendations by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) that the country be listed among “Countries of Particular Concern” for its mistreatment of religious minorities. The decision is a step forward, albeit not far enough.

American diplomats have chosen in the past to ignore persecution on religious grounds by strategically important countries like Pakistan. But as the increasing U.S. disillusionment with Pakistan indicates, such concessions do not always advance American interests. When Washington overlooks its values to accommodate authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states, it only emboldens them in defying its strategic interests as well.

The American Congress created USCIRF under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to report violations of religious freedom by other countries to the executive and legislative branches of government. Once designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) by the State Department, the U.S. government can deprive a country of foreign aid and other benefits of partnership with the United States.

Pakistan has repeatedly been found by USCIRF “to perpetrate and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations.” As this year’s report aptly notes, “Religiously discriminatory constitutional provisions and legislation, such as the country’s blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, continue to result in prosecutions and imprisonments.”

The historic roots of this reality run deep. The word Pakistan literally means “the land of the pure.” In their effort to create a “purer” Islamic state, Pakistan’s leaders have allowed extremists to target different minorities at different times. Soon after the country’s creation in 1947, Hindus and Sikhs were driven out, reducing the population of Pakistan’s non-Muslims to around 3 percent. The two wings of the country, which until 1971 included East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), would have included 23 percent non-Muslims had there been no ethnic cleansing amidst communal riots during India’s brutal partition.

Pakistan declared itself an Islamic Republic when it belatedly adopted its first constitution in 1956. Since then, Christians have been victimized by the country’s blasphemy laws, with many of them ending up in prison on false charges. Rivals in property disputes and even spurned lovers have turned to blasphemy accusations to condemn their enemies. Blasphemy is often punishable by death, and attacks by Islamist vigilantes on judges who acquit those accused of blasphemy makes it virtually impossible for victims to secure bail or acquittal under the flawed laws.

Over the years, the ranks of Pakistan’s endangered minorities have only expanded. In 1974, Pakistan’s parliament amended the constitution to pronounce members of the Ahmadiyya movement—who consider themselves a sect within Islam—to be non-Muslims. That amendment created a religious dilemma for the Ahmadis: their faith required them to insist that they were Muslims, but the law would punish them if they did so. Ahmadis were barred from identifying as Muslims on government documents, while later decrees imposed by Islamist military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq further restricted Ahmadis’ use of Islamic symbols and their public practice of the faith.

These days, as several Christians and Ahmadis sit in Pakistani prisons facing blasphemy charges, terrorist groups have also attacked Shi‘a Muslims, who represent almost 20 percent of the populace. Jihadi groups created and trained to fight “infidel” communists in Afghanistan and “Hindu” India pose a growing a threat at home, but no one in a position of power has the will or courage to shut them down. And sectarian violence, including attacks on places of worship, continues to claim innocent lives. Just before Christmas last year, an attack on a Methodist Church in Quetta, Balochistan killed eight people. This came a few weeks after the TLYR sit-in, in which three thousand rabid Sufi-professing Sunni Muslim men—including the high schooler who would later kill his principal—took over Islamabad for almost three weeks, paralyzing the government.

Unfortunately, authorities’ response to this mounting radicalism has been conciliation, not confrontation. Instead of enforcing the law against the small number of protestors, the civilian government was forced to accept their demands. With the country’s army chief acting as negotiator, a truce was signed between the government and the extremists’ leader. Witnesses spotted military officers giving money to some of the protestors, raising suspicions that the protests had been engineered to further undermine the authority of the civilians.

Ironically, one of the protestors’ demands was not to allow Pakistani Ahmadi citizens to vote alongside the majority Muslim population. That reflects a tragic pattern in Pakistani history of political mobilization through intolerance for religious minorities.

In short, Pakistan’s dismal record on religious freedom is longstanding and deeply rooted. USCIRF and other advocates have spent years lamenting this state of affairs, and have repeatedly demanded that the U.S. government exert greater pressure on Islamabad over its lack of religious freedom. But the State Department has repeatedly overlooked these findings to avoid jeopardizing Pakistan’s cooperation on strategic matters.

In 2016, Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) added the “Special Watch List” option to the International Religious Freedom Act so that the State Department could protest a lack of religious freedom even when it is reluctant to trigger sanctions for a particular country. The Secretary of State seems to have taken advantage of this halfway house designation in his recent attempt to put Pakistan on notice.

The Special Watch List designation for Pakistan could help Pakistan’s religious minorities, who have received little support within their country. Such is the sway of extremist ideology in Pakistan that the cold-blooded murder of Ahmadis, Shi‘a, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs barely registers within the country, let alone abroad. The State Department’s new designation will hopefully change that reality, by publicly recognizing Pakistan as a violator of the universal norms of religious freedom and raising awareness of the precarious situation of Pakistani citizens persecuted solely for their faith.

Yet the State Department can go beyond naming and shaming Pakistan on the Special Watch List. After the confirmation of former Senator Sam Brownback as the new U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, the United States could include religious discrimination as an important plank in its diplomatic interaction with Pakistan. That might mean further relegating Pakistan to the list of Countries of Particular Concern, and thus triggering sanctions, unless Pakistan reforms its discriminatory and dangerous laws.

As U.S. Senator during the 1990s, Mr. Brownback wrote legislation that helped Pakistan partially overcome American sanctions resulting from pursuing a nuclear weapons program. He could use the goodwill he has with Pakistan’s civil and military leaders to remind them of their duties towards religious minorities under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Prioritizing this issue is not simply the right thing to do for Pakistan’s beleaguered minorities. It is also a smart course correction for Washington at a time when the United States is finally reconsidering its strained alliance with Pakistan.

The article was published by “The American Interest” Persecution in the Land of the Pure By Farahnaz Ispahani

on: January 30, 2018

The writer Farahnaz Ispahani is a former member of Pakistan’s Parliament, where she served on the foreign affairs and human rights committees. Her book Purifying The Land of the Pure: The History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities (Oxford University Press) was published in 2017. She is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC.