“Pakistan’s blasphemy laws persecute the weakest of the weak” By Farahnaz Ispahani

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.”

Asia Bibi
Asia Bibi- who was sentenced to death under Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law

On Saturday, Rome’s Colosseum was lit in red in support of persecuted Christians, including Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. At the Rome gathering, Pope Francis described Bibi, alongside a Nigerian woman who was captured by Boko Haram, as “martyrs.”

Bibi, an illiterate berry picker, was convicted of defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed. She was accused by her Muslim neighbors who objected to her drinking water from the same glass as them because she was Christian. Under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, her alleged comment is punishable by death. In 2010, Bibi, at age 45, was sentenced to hang, but her case is still pending.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws date back to the military dictatorship of Gen. 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 “willful desecration of the Quran” and, in 1986, a separate clause was added to punish blasphemy against Prophet Mohammed with “death, or imprisonment for life.”

Author Farahnaz Ispahani

Bibi’s case illustrates how blasphemy laws are used to persecute the weakest of the weak among Pakistan’s religious minorities. As a poor Christian from a low 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

However, Bibi’s case isn’t the first case 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 arrest of a suspect — even without corroborating evidence. Furthermore, the testimony of non-Muslim witnesses in defense 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 extrajudicially murdered or died in jail.”

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.

Nonetheless, until now, Western governments, which viewed Pakistan as a strategic ally in the war on terrorism, did little to protect Pakistan’s religious minorities.

However, that might now be changing — albeit slowly.

The Pope’s attention to Bibi’s case parallels efforts by the European Union’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief to secure her release by making it a condition for continued European market access for Pakistani products.

More specifically, Jan Figel, part of the special envoy, informed the Pakistani government that the future of Generalized System of Preferences, or GSP, status to Pakistan, which allows Pakistan duty-free access to the EU markets, would be directly linked to the peaceful resolution of Asia Bibi’s blasphemy case.

Farahnaz Ispahani is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a senior fellow for South and Southeast Asia at the Religious Freedom Institute. She 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,” published in 2017. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

The article was originally published by CNN & link: Pakistan’s blasphemy laws persecute the weakest of the weak by Farahnaz Ispahani

Interview with Farahnaz Ispahani on “Religious strife in the Middle East and the destruction caused by military dictatorships”

Aaron talks with former Pakistani Assembly Member and current Pakistani Presidential Media Advisor and Spokeswoman Farahnaz Ispahani. They discuss religious strife in the Middle East and the destruction caused by military dictatorships, why, in Ispahani’s words, current events really can’t be called an “Arab Spring,” the struggle for women in the region, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also discussed are the situation in Washington and the failure of the two-party system, as well as the Kashmir region.

Link to the video of interview: Religious strife in the Middle East- Farahnaz Ispahani

Link to the Video of Interview: Aaron talks with Farahnaz Ispahani

Persecution Without Prosecution: The Fate of Minorities in Pakistan- By Farahnaz Ispahani

The South Asia Channel

Persecution Without Prosecution: The Fate of Minorities in Pakistan

Persecution Without Prosecution: The Fate of Minorities in Pakistan

On Sunday morning, March 15th, 22-year-old Akash Bashir volunteered to guard the gates outside of St. John’s Catholic Church in Lahore, Pakistan. As the service drew to a close, an armed gunman strapped with explosives sprinted towards the entrance, firing at the gate. Bashir and a fellow security volunteer managed to knock the attacker over. When the man tried to get up, Bashir tackled him, hugging him tightly as he set off his explosives a few moments later. Fifteen were killed, including Bashir, in twin suicide bombings that day, but witnesses said if not for Bashir’s bravery, the numbers would have been far worse.

The story of Bashir’s heroism has, for the most part, never made it out of Pakistan. What has trickled into the West’s consciousness are only bits and pieces of the deadly tales of Pakistan’s religious minorities: 93 Ahmadi worshipers killed in 2010; 80 Christians slaughtered at the All Saints Church in 2013; 60 Shiite Muslims murdered at a mosque in Sindh in January; 43 Ismaili’s gunned down inside a bus last month. The stories are horrific, but they hardly begin to convey the pervasive sense of dread that the nearly 40 million members of Pakistan’s religious minority communities live with on a daily basis.

The problem has become so serious that religious minorities are fleeing the country in droves. As many as 10,000 Pakistani Christians (but official United Nations’ figures say 4,000) are now believed to be living “under the radar” in Thailand, fending off arrest by Thai police for illegal entry as they cling to the hope of making it through the grueling U.N. refugee resettlement process. International Christian Concern’s offices — an NGO that assists Christians who have been the victims of religious persecution — routinely get calls from Pakistanis around the globe pleading for help as they try to find any possible avenue of escape from an endless cycle of violence and discrimination.

The tragedy in all of this is not simply the scale of human suffering, but the one-sided response of the Pakistani government. In 2013, thousands of enraged Sunni Muslim’s rampaged through the Christian neighborhood of Joseph Colony in Lahore, torching over 100 homes after a Christian man was accused of committing “blasphemy” against Islam. In the two years since, not a single individual from the mob has been convicted. Meanwhile the Christian accused of blasphemy, Sawan Masih, was arrested and sentenced to death, a penalty that is mandatory by order of the Federal Shariat Court. This example is consistent with a long-running pattern of prosecuting religious minorities while allowing those who persecute them to escape justice.

Sawan Masih’s case is also an example of another seemingly intractable issue — Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws. Strengthened in the early 1980s under the rule of military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, thousands have since been arrested and imprisoned under the draconian legislation, often used as an excuse to settle personal scores or whip up religious fervor against marginalized minorities. There are currently 14 people on death row for blasphemy, including at least four Christians, while another 19 people are serving life sentences. Those who are actually arrested for blasphemy are often the lucky ones. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 60 individuals have been murdered, often by mob violence, since 1990 before they could even be convicted of this so-called “crime.” In 2014, a young Christian couple pregnant with their fifth child was burned alive in a brick kiln by an enraged mob over a blasphemy accusation.

The answer to all of this, at least from the United States’ perspective, is staggeringly simple. The U.S. State Department should use its authority to designate Pakistan a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC), a recommendation has been made repeatedly by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The designation, which according to the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act must be applied to any nation that “engages in or tolerates particularly severe violations of religious freedom” is the single most powerful message the United States can send to a country which consistently fails to protect religious minorities. The United States could then institute economic sanctions and other penalties until Pakistan reforms its policies, putting the appalling treatment of religious minorities in Pakistan at the front and center of U.S-Pakistan relations. Pakistan fits the definition of a CPC more so than any other nation on Earth, with perhaps the exception of North Korea. The United States is committed, both legally and morally, to uphold this fundamental right of religious freedom and do everything possible to stop the bloodshed. The United States must stop willfully turning a blind eye to the purification of all of Pakistan’s religious minorities and must utilize this crucial tool of U.S. foreign policy. Unless the Pakistani state, civilian and military, puts all its efforts into reforming laws to provide equality and protection to all its citizens, Pakistan must and should be designated a CPC, for the sake of the people of Pakistan.

Originally Published by: Foreign Policy with Link: Persecution Without Prosecution: The Fate of Minorities in Pakistan- by Farahnaz Ispahani