International Commission of Jurists urges Islamabad to take human rights abuses against minorities ‘seriously’ and recommends repeal of blasphemy laws
Pakistan must urgently respond to serious and ongoing persecution of citizens from religious minority groups by state and non-state actors, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said last week.
“The Pakistani authorities have shamefully failed to address repeated calls to curb the longstanding violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief, including many instances of persecution of religious minority groups,” said ICJ Secretary-General Sam Zarifi in a statement issued alongside a new briefing paper that analyzes and recommends mitigation of violations of the right to freedom of belief in Pakistan in the following contexts:
- Blasphemy laws and their implementation;
- The persecution of Ahmadis, including as a result of the criminalization of the public manifestation and practice of their faith; and
- Reports of forced conversions of girls belonging to minority religions, often followed by their marriage to Muslim men
“It is time the Pakistani authorities take these human rights abuses seriously—dismissing the truth about the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan and calling them ‘isolated incidents’ that are used to give a bad name to the country only emphasizes the failures of the Pakistani government,” said Zarifi, referring to statements by multiple government officials that attempt to paint abuse of minorities as aberrations rather than the product of decades of discrimination.
The briefing paper notes that the state has failed to prevent and respond to violence and discrimination by non-state actors against religious minorities, in particular the Shia Muslim community; provided inadequate protection and application of personal laws of religious minorities; and compelled individuals from religious minorities to receive Islamic religious instruction in public schools.
It also stresses that this condemnation is nothing new, noting that U.N. human rights mechanisms and experts have “for years” expressed concern regarding violations of freedom of religion or belief in Pakistan. “Both the Human Rights Committee and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief have previously recommended that Pakistan should repeal or amend its so-called blasphemy laws, in accordance with the country’s human rights obligations,” it added.
Recalling that even though Pakistan’s Constitution mandates Islam as the state religion, it also acknowledges the rights of people to practice other religions. “In a landmark 2014 judgment, Pakistan’s Supreme Court clarified and expanded the scope of the right to freedom of religion or belief in the Constitution in light of international human rights law. The Court explained that ‘religion’ cannot be defined in rigid terms, and held that freedom of religion includes freedom of conscience, thought, expression, belief and faith, and that each citizen of Pakistan is free to exercise the right to profess, practice and propagate their religious views, even against the prevailing or dominant views of their own religious denomination or sect,” it added, regretting that had not been implemented in practice.
To ensure the protection of minorities’ rights in Pakistan, the ICJ has put forward several recommendations:
- Repeal all ‘blasphemy’ laws, particularly sections 295-A, 295-B, 295-C, 298-A of the Pakistan Penal Code or amend them substantially so that they be consistent with international human rights law and standards
- As a short-term, temporary measure until wider reform of the blasphemy laws can be processed, the ICJ recommends abolishing the mandatory death penalty for section 295-C cases; requiring proof of all offenses related to religion; making all blasphemy-related offenses bailable; and ensuring judicial warrants are required prior to investigating or arresting anyone accused of blasphemy
- Ensure the right to a fair trial of all people accused of blasphemy, as well as the right to a speedy trial
- Amend Section 196 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to ensure courts cannot take cognizance of “blasphemy-related offenses” without intervention from provincial or federal governments, preferably officials of the Ministry of Law, Justice and Human Rights. The ICJ stresses this should be a ‘temporary safeguard’ to deter malicious or frivolous prosecution
- Repeal provisions of Pakistan’s Constitution and its Penal Code that declare Ahmadis non-Muslim and criminalize the practice of their religious beliefs, and ensure their human rights are guaranteed in law and practice
- Ensure prompt, independent and impartial investigations into attacks on Ahmadis, bring perpetrators to justice, and ensure Ahmadis have access to justice and effective remedies for human rights violations;
- Constitute an independent committee comprising members of religious minority groups and human rights organizations to research “forced conversions” in Pakistan and use such research to guide law and policy on the issue
- Ensure any legislation criminalizing “forced conversions” is consistent with Pakistan’s obligations under international human rights law, including, in particular, with respect to the right to freedom of religion or belief, as well as with the principle of legality
- Ensure any legislation regarding religious conversion of children is compatible with the Convention on the Rights of the Child
- Revise the Child Marriage Restraint Act to set the minimum age of marriage regardless of gender at 18 years across Pakistan
- Ensure allegations of “forced conversion” and “forced marriage” are independently, impartially and promptly investigated, with perpetrators arrested and victims assured justice in proceedings that guarantee the right to a fair trial
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