ISLAMABAD, April 18: The chief justice was in a hurry for once. In just the second hearing on Wednesday of a case related to the conversion of three Hindu women, a Supreme Court bench, headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, wrapped up the case and announced its judgment.
The three young women present in the court were told to express their ‘true’ feelings about what they wanted to do and Sindh police were ordered to be their ‘protectors’ — ensure their safety and their happiness.
Police were asked to submit reports every fortnight about the wellbeing of the women.
The women did not utter a word during the proceedings. Later they were sent off to the registrar’s office to pour their hearts out.
In between, they were kept apart from their parents; they were taken to the registrar’s office from a different route so that no one would run into them.
The women recorded their statements before the registrar and decided to go with their husbands.
The judgment, however, did not go down well with the hapless parents. For the rest of the afternoon, the human tragedy that is the Hindu minority in Pakistan was played out on the steps of the Supreme Court building and outside as the families spoke to media and protested the verdict. Wednesday did not bring them the justice for which they had travelled from Sindh to Islamabad.
The women who appeared before the court under the watchful eyes of Sindh police were Rinkal Kumari, 19, (now known as Faryal Bibi) of Mirpur Mathelo, Dr Lata Kumari, 30, (Hafsa) of Jacobabad, and Aasha Devi, 19, (Haleema Bibi) of Jacobabad, who earlier was missing but surfaced voluntarily.
“We gave these girls sufficient time to think about their future and we will not force them. They are grown-up and are allowed to go wherever they want to go,” the chief justice observed. He said they were sui juris (one who has reached maturity and is no longer dependent) and, therefore, fully in a position to decide about the future.
“We feel they (the women) stayed in a pressure-free atmosphere at the Panah Shelter Home in Karachi where neither of the parties was allowed to meet them,” the court observed.
The order, however, generated instant commotion inside the courtroom, prompting the chief justice to ask the counsel for different parties to urge their clients to maintain discipline.
Frantic developments were seen soon after the announcement of the verdict. Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, patron of the Pakistan Hindu Council (PHC), called an emergent meeting to discuss implications of the verdict.
The PHC also filed a petition highlighting abduction of Hindu girls who were then forced to change their religion and married off to Muslim men. The court will take up the case after two weeks.
The disappointed parents of these women and members of the Hindu community, including parliamentarians from the ruling PPP, staged a sit-in outside the Supreme Court for some time and called for giving custody of the women to their parents.
“This is complete injustice in the name of Islam,” shouted Mohen, father of Aasha, outside the courtroom. He asked why the court did not take into consideration a demand by police for payment of Rs1.8 million for recovering the girl — a demand which was raised to Rs3.5 million and then to Rs5 million. “From where we will fetch this kind of money.”
He said the Hindu community was being forced to leave Pakistan.
The mothers of the three women kept weeping and wailing outside the Supreme Court and alleged that the court had never allowed the girls to meet their parents.
Ramesh Lal, a PPP MNA from Larkana, said minorities had lost all hopes in the country’s judiciary and today justice had been buried forever. “Why the judiciary, which never tires of taking suo motu notices against the president and the prime minister, is not taking notice about police demanding money from the victim families to recover the girls,” he asked.
Noor Naz Agha, the counsel for Rinkal, however, welcomed the verdict and said the court had rightly accepted that being adult, the girls had a right to live their lives according to their choice.
But she held the absence of legislation responsible for the rising number of complaints about forced conversions and marriages.
Mian Aslam, son of MNA Faqir Abdul Haq alias Mian Mitho, who was accused of abducting Rinkal, rejected the allegations, wondering “if we kidnapped her then why she was produced before the magistrate to record her will and later handed over to police”.
He brushed aside an impression that the girls were converted to Islam forcibly.
GILGIT, April 4 – The authorities issued shoot-on-sight orders to the law enforcement agencies to maintain law and order situation after 17 people were killed and more than 50 wounded in sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan on Tuesday.
The attacks led to an army deployment and imposition of curfew in the city, confining the inhabitants to their homes, as the situation turned violent.
The ISPR in a statement said the Army has been summoned to Gilgit to control the law and order situation. The casualties occurred in two separate incidents in the northern towns of Gilgit and Chilas.
In Gilgit, gunmen opened fire during a strike called by Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) over the arrest of one of their leaders, Attaullah Saqib, for his alleged involvement in a sectarian attack in February that left 18 dead.
The rioters ran amok when police refused to release Attaullah Saqib. Angry protesters opened fire and pelted the anti-riot police with stones, leaving several officers injured. Some unknown men hurled hand grenades at Ittehad Chowk that injured two policemen and a passerby. “At least seven people were killed and 50 others were wounded,” said an official.
Senior local police official Ali Sher told AFP the gunmen opened fire on a group of Sunnis appealing to people to close their shops in response to the strike call. It is pertinent to mention here that a complete shutterdown strike was observed against the arrest of Attaullah Saqib, who is said to be chief of Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Gilgit chapter.
A curfew was imposed in the city after the incident to bring the situation under control, the official said. Soldiers were given orders to shoot at anyone who defied the curfew order, the local media reported.
A total of 14 people have reportedly been arrested in the city following the clashes. In the February incident, gunmen disguised in military fatigues hauled 18 Shias off buses and shot them dead in cold blood in the northern district of Kohistan, which neighbours the Swat valley. A local intelligence official, who did not want to be identified, confirmed Tuesday’s death toll and also said a hand grenade had been used.
“But we still don’t know who the attackers were,” he said. He added that tensions had been mounting between the Shias and Sunnis in recent weeks.
In Bonar Das area of Chilas, a Sunni-dominated town about 100 kilometres south of Gilgit, a mob blocked the main Karakoram Highway and killed ten Shias, local police official Alam Jan said.
“The mob took out ten men from buses and shot them dead,” an official said.
Hundreds of people took to the streets in Chilas protesting the killings in Gilgit, he said, adding that the rioters set four buses on fire.
A local intelligence official confirmed the death toll.
Meanwhile, a police officer and his bodyguard were also injured while driving to a bus station in the city to provide security for the passengers from Rawalpindi.
The deteriorating situation in Chilas had prompted the local authorities to impose a curfew there.
Gilgit is the capital of Gilgit-Baltistan region and is popular with mountaineers as a gateway to the Karakoram and Himalayan mountain ranges.
Around 75% of the region’s population follows some form of Shia Islam, almost an exact reversal of the norm in the rest of Pakistan. This makes the Northern Areas the only Shia majority political unit in Sunni-dominated Pakistan. There are four sects in Gilgit-Baltistan; Shia, Noorbakshi and Ismaili communities believe in the offices of Imamat, according to them, runs after the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) through Ali and his male successors. Whereas Sunnis believe in the office of the Khilafat and according to them Abu Bakr, Usman and Ali were the Caliphs after the death of Muhammad (PBUH).
HARIPUR, Pakistan: It’s an ornate but not lavish two-story house tucked away at the end of a mud clogged street. This is where Pakistan’s intelligence agency believes Osama bin Laden lived for nearly a year until he moved into the villa in which he was eventually killed.
The residence in the frontier town of Haripur was one of five safe houses used by the slain al-Qaeda leader while on the run in Pakistan according to information revealed by his youngest wife, who has been detained.
Retired Pakistani Brig. Shaukat Qadir, who has spent the last eight months tracking bin Laden’s movements, told The Associated Press that he was taken to the Haripur house last November by intelligence agents who located it from a description they got from Amal Ahmed Abdel-Fatah al-Sada.
Al-Sada, a 30-year-old Yemeni, has been in Pakistani custody since May 2 when US Navy SEALs overran the Abbottabad compound, killing bin Laden and four other people inside. Since then, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, known as the ISI, has been trying to uncover the trail that brought him to Abbottabad villa in the summer of 2005.
The best information appears to have come from al-Sada, who was believed to be his favourite and who traveled with bin Laden since his escape from Afghanistan’s eastern Tora Bora mountain range in 2001.
Qadir, a 35-year army veteran who is now a security consultant, was given rare access to transcripts of Pakistani intelligence’s interrogation of al-Sada and access to other documents on bin-Laden’s movements. He provided the AP with details in a recent interview.
The details of bin Laden’s life as a fugitive – which were first published by the Pakistani newspaper Dawn – raise fresh questions over how bin Laden was able to remain undetected for so long in Pakistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, despite being the subject of a massive international manhunt.
Yet a senior US official, who is familiar with the contents recovered in bin Laden’s Abbottabad house, said there was no evidence that Pakistani officials were aware of bin Laden’s presence.
“There was no smoking gun. We didn’t find anything,” he said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak about the contents of the Abbottabad house.
According to the interrogation report, bin Laden lived in five safe houses and fathered four children – the two youngest born in a public hospital in Abbotabad. But investigators have only located the houses in Abbottabad and Haripur.
Al-Sada’s descriptions of the homes have been vague and the Haripur house was found only after a series of hits and misses.
She knew only that it was located on the edge of Haripur, it was two stories and it had a basement. It apparently was used by bin Laden while he waited for construction crews to finish his new home Abbottabad, a garrison town just 30 kilometers away.
Investigators scoured the area looking for properties until they found the Haripur house in Naseem Town, a chaotic suburb where relatively affluent houses bump up against sun-baked mud huts that belong to nomadic Afghans.
Like the CIA, the Pakistani agency also tracked the movements of bin Laden’s Pakistani courier who used the pseudonym Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti and his brother. The two were ethnic Pashtuns from Pakistan’s Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province on the border with Afghanistan. They were bin Laden’s front men.
The ISI discovered that the Haripur house, like the land on which bin Laden’s Abbottabad villa was built, was rented by two Pashtun brothers claiming to be from Charsadda, a Pashtun dominated town about 110 kilometers away.
The AP located the Haripur house that Qadir said ISI agents had taken him to last November and found the real estate broker, Pir Mohammed, who rented the four-bedroom house to the two brothers, Salim and Javed Khan from Charsadda, for $150 a month.
At the time Pir Mohammed ran a small real estate firm called Mashallah. He said his meeting with the brothers was random.
“They must have seen my sign and come in,” Mohammed said, adding that he had met the brothers only three times – when they signed the contract, when they moved into the house and when they moved out 11 months later.
Two months ago several ISI agents took all the records of the house and its tenants since its construction in 2000, said Qasi Anis Rahman, the brother of the widow who owns the house.
“All they said was that it was for ‘security purposes,’” said Rahman.
Al-Sada is currently in Pakistani custody, along with bin Laden’s two other wives and several children. They were arrested after the raid. The US Navy SEALs shot al-Sada in the leg during the operation.
Mohammed Amir Khalil, a lawyer for the three widows, said the women would be formally charged for illegally staying in Pakistan on April 2. That charge carries a maximum five-year prison sentence.
QUETTA, March 29: At least five people were gunned down, and six others sustained injuries, when a van carrying people belonging to the Hazara community was ambushed on Spini road in Quetta Thursday morning.
Law enforcement agencies and the police put security on high alert in the city after the incident.
According to a senior police official, the van was on its way to Marriabad from Hazara Town when a group of armed men opened indiscriminate fire near Killi Mubarak.
Five people, including a woman, died on the spot while six other were wounded. The assailants fled the scene after the incident.
A heavy contingent of police and security forces reached the spot and cordoned off the area to collect evidence.
The bodies and injured were shifted to Provincial Sandeman Hospital and Bolan Medical Complex where an emergency had been declared. The injured were later shifted to Combined Military Hospital.
Policeman killed in protests
The incident sparked protest in different parts of the city, especially in areas dominated by the Hazara community on Brewery Road.
Protestors shot at security personnel, killing one policeman, Mukham Raza, and injuring a protestor.
Government Girls College Quetta College on Brewery Road was set alight, and fire brigades were called in to extinguish the blaze that engulfed the outer wall of the college building.
Protesters also intercepted two motorbikes and torched them.
The Hazara Democratic Party called for a shutter-down strike in Quetta on Friday (today) to protest the killings. Jamhoori Watan Party, Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party and the Awami Nation Party backed the strike call.
A senior police official said that Frontier Corps and police have jointly launched a search operation in different areas of Quetta, including Saryab, and arrested 45 suspects.
No group had claimed responsibility for the attack till the filing of this report.
The government has decided to form an exclusive force for the protection of the Hazara community following frequent incidents of targeted killings last year. Meanwhile, attacks on the community have intensified in the past few days.
2 UN workers shot dead
Two local UN workers were shot dead by unknown assailants in Mastung, about 50km from Quetta.
According to official sources, three persons, identified as Habibullah, Irfan and Mohammad Zahid were en route to Mastung from Quetta when armed men on a motorbike opened fire on their vehicle near Mastung Stadium bypass, killing two of them on the spot. Irfan sustained bullet wounds.
Law enforcement agencies rushed to the spot soon after the incident and cordoned off the area.
“They were working for UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and were coming to Mastung to visit their office,” sources said, adding that the victims were residents of Quetta.
The bodies of the deceased and the injured were taken to Provincial Sandeman Hospital for autopsy and later handed over to the heirs for burial.
Chief Minister Nawab Aslam Raisani strongly condemned the killings in Quetta and Mastung and directed law enforcing agencies to arrest the culprits involved.
The Koran burning incident, which has raged in Afghanistan since the last couple of weeks, is symptomatic of the mutual misunderstanding with which the US and regional players have bumbled on for the last 10 1/2 years – with no clear goal in sight.
If the US goal in Afghanistan was to train the security forces to handle their own defenses, the incident of US soldiers burning the Koran outside Bagram prison – allegedly to thwart planning by Taliban soldiers against them – indicates that the decade long war has not taught American soldiers basic cultural norms of Muslim societies.
The Afghans have refused to buy the argument by US soldiers that the notes written on the Korans by Taliban prisoners may have been code words for an insurgency. Instead, the issue has touched a far deeper chord than the video of US soldiers humiliating the corpses of Taliban soldiers…which was repeatedly played in the US media.
The Koran burning incident has thrown world leaders into a bind. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, knowing that his fate will be decided by the Afghans after his US patrons leave, has turned to the Ulema (religious clergy) to defuse the crisis.
On the other hand, US President Barak Obama – with his multi-cultural upbringing – has apologized, but failed to contain the violence that has infiltrated into the Afghan security forces.
If the US had taken a leaf from history, it would found the need for greater sensitivity in a cultural milieu where tribal Afghans have fought off Western influences like the plague.
For example, the former Soviet Union was forced to end its modernity campaign in Afghanistan shortly after its invasion in 1979, after Russian literacy workers were murdered by conservative Afghans. Millions of Afghans migrated to Pakistan, where they coalesced into the Mujahidin. These “holy warriors” were subsequently funded and armed by the US against the Soviets in Afghanistan… in a movement that has fathered the Taliban.
Today, with history come a full circle, Afghan conservatism raises new challenges for the Obama administration.
The Koran burning issue has already spilled into Pakistan where the religious parties (who served as the mid-wives for the Taliban during the 1990s) have used it to capitalize on anti-US sentiment.
In Pakistan, the victimization of religious minorities and even Muslims suspected of sacrilegious acts mushroomed after 1984, when the Gen. Zia ul Haq’s military coup was followed by passage of the Blasphemy Laws to award the death penalty for insulting the Prophet of Islam and the Koran.
In 1994, I visited Gujranwala town in the Punjab to see how a Muslim who had even memorized the Koran, suffered the ultimate penalty for alleged blasphemy. The unfortunate Muslim, Hafiz Farooq Sajjad whose Koran caught fire…it is impossible to verify how it happened… was spotted by his neighbor while the Holy Book was burning, and reported he had burnt it on purpose.
As the news of the Koran burning spread through the town, the clerics announced it from the mosque. An angry mob descended on Sajjad’s home, tied him to the back of his motor bike and dragged him till he died of his wounds.
The most virulent Muslim sects have since emerged from the small towns of the Punjab – groups like the Anjuman Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan and the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi – who have singled out Shias, Christians, Ahmediyas and even Muslims for extermination.
Only last week the anti Iranian group, Jundullah took responsibility for singling out Shias traveling in a passenger bus in Pakistan’s northern areas – whence they were forced to disembark and shot on account of their sect.
In this complex scenario, where nations use religious and ethnic groups to fight proxy wars in the Pak-Afghan region, the dangers of religious extremism rise in proportion to incidents like Koran burning.
Indeed, as the Taliban claims military successes in Afghanistan… the religious extremists moving across the porous borders to Pakistan carry the seeds of intolerance that threaten to destabilize the nation still further.
If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience. – George Bernard Shaw
KABUL: Afghanistan has instructed women TV presenters to stop appearing without a headscarf and to wear less make-up, officials said, raising fears about creeping restrictions on the fledgling media.
“All the TV networks are in seriousness asked to stop women presenters from appearing on TV without a veil and with dense make-up,” the information and culture ministry said. “All women newscasters on Afghan TV channels are also asked to respect Islamic and Afghan values,” it added.
A spokesperson for President Hamid Karzai told AFP on Tuesday that the ministry took the decision after coming under pressure from the Ulema council, the country’s highest religious body of Islamic scholars.
Afghan media, essentially non-existent under the 1996 to 2001 Taliban regime, have enjoyed considerable freedom, with more than two dozen TV stations springing up in the decade since the 2001 US-led invasion.
I first became aware of Pakistan’s blasphemy law soon before I turned 18. It was 1991, and although less than three years had passed since a plane explosion killed General Zia and subsequent elections brought Benazir Bhutto to power, the optimism which surrounded those events had already largely dissipated.
Benazir’s ineffectual government had lasted less than two years before being dismissed on corruption charges, and Zia’s protégé Nawaz Sharif was the new prime minister. If Benazir lacked the political power and nerve to overturn any of the repressive laws which Zia had introduced or strengthened in the name of Islam, Nawaz lacked the inclination to do so. The coalition of parties which he headed – the Islamic Democratic Alliance – had, from the outset, knowingly positioned itself against Benazir’s secular, female-led Pakistan People’s Party.
So it wasn’t surprising, but it was sickening, when Sharif’s government went along with the Federal Shariat Court’s ruling of October 1990, stating that an existing law which permitted life imprisonment rather than death to those found guilty of blasphemy was repugnant to Islam. “The penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet … is death” the court plainly declared, and the government drew up a bill to bring the law into accordance with this ruling.
The blasphemy law, as it’s come to be known, had been around in a milder form long before the Federal Shariat Court’s ruling. In 1947, when the new nation of Pakistan adopted the Indian penal code (drawn up by the British), it included Section 295-A, which ran as follows: “Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of Pakistan by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”
For the first few decades of Pakistan’s existence, 295-A was scarcely ever invoked, but when General Zia came to power following a military coup and decided the best way to circumnavigate the absence of a popular mandate was to claim the role of religious saviour, everything changed in the relationship between religion and state.
“Islamisation” became the word of the hour – or rather, of the decade that followed Zia’s usurpation of power. All political parties were banned, their leaders imprisoned if they weren’t in exile, except for the right-wing religious party, the Jamaat-e-Islami; advancement in the army and government became tied to a willingness to espouse Zia’s Islam; school curriculums were “Islamised” – which meant science fell out of favour, religious instruction was raised above all other subjects and the heroes of Pakistan’s history were men who killed (usually Hindus and Sikhs) in the name of religion. It’s worth noting that everyone in Pakistan today under the age of 40 who attended government schools (which is most of the school-going population) would have had Zia’s curriculum and world view pressed into their brains from a very early age.
At the private school I attended, where we followed the ‘O’-level syllabus and used English language texts published outside Pakistan, I grew up learning an entirely different version of the world. Our history lessons covered the ancient world, medieval Europe, a patchwork of Indian history from the Aryan invasions to the rise of Buddhism to the Mughals, through the British Empire to the creation of Pakistan. Islamic lessons – known, to the great amusement of my parents, as RI (religious instruction) – weren’t given any great prominence, but at the same time all students knew that RI was the one lesson where you couldn’t question anything.
Where did this attitude come from? I didn’t learn it from my home life, I know; was it merely the atmosphere of Zia’s Pakistan seeping through or had religion always been sealed in a protected bubble, except in the most radical circles? That’s a question which requires more space to discuss – for the moment, suffice it to say that by the mid-80s an extremist version of Islam had not only been codified in law but had made its way into daily life. Moreover, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and India’s acts of brutality against the largely Muslim population of the Kashmir Valley provided seemingly endless opportunities for pro-jihad propaganda. And then, of course, there was Saudi Arabia, delighted with the Wahabbism of Pakistan’s new head of state and only too happy to spend its petrodollars funding Wahabbi mosques and madrassas in Zia’s beleaguered nation.
All this is necessary to understand the atmosphere in which Zia widened the scope of the blasphemy laws, most notably with the addition of a new section 295-C: “Use of derogatory remarks, etc. in respect of the Holy Prophet. Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”
From the first, the new and expanded blasphemy laws were used as tools of persecution, used not only against non-Muslims but also against Muslims belonging to minority sects (who were viewed by the Wahabbis as being as bad as, if not worse, than non-Muslims). In an entirely skin-crawling manner, the newly fanged laws made perfect sense for Zia’s rule – if you’re going to claim that your authority stems from your role as champion of Islam, then you have to show yourself zealous in finding and punishing those who offend Islam, both at home and abroad. I have to confess that I don’t recall any conversations around the blasphemy laws in Zia’s days. Perhaps this is because there was so much else to froth at the mouth about around his Islamisation policy. Or because I was 13 at the time.
But I remember very clearly the terrifying period four years later, in the newly democratic Pakistan, when Nawaz Sharif’s government did something which Zia’s government had considered and rejected: impose a mandatory death sentence in blasphemy cases. Every hope that the end of Zia would see a reversal of his Islamisation policies died right there and the number of cases registered under 295-C kept on rising. Most of those who were accused, particularly in the early days, were non-Muslims or Ahmediyyas (a group who refer to themselves as Muslim but have been declared non-Muslim by the Pakistan state and are subject to vicious persecution).
But the case which most struck me was that of Akhtar Hameed Khan – a development activist, and one of the great heroes of Pakistan, and in particular of my home city of Karachi. I always heard his name uttered with admiration in my household, so it was chilling to pick up the newspaper one morning and find him accused of blasphemy, and even more chilling to hear the offending words were in a poem for children that ‘could be read’ as blasphemous if you chose to interpret them in a particular way. In the end, he escaped conviction (as he did on the other two occasions when he was accused under the blasphemy law), but the incident was enough to make it clear to me that the law could be used against any writer who strayed from orthodoxy.
In Benazir’s second term in office, her government made some attempts to amend the blasphemy law to decrease its abuse by those seeking to persecute minorities or settle private scores. Her law minister Iqbal Haider later said he had won the agreement of other parties including the hardline religious Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) for making those amendments; but as soon as a newspaper erroneously reported that the government was planning to repeal the blasphemy laws, there were mass demonstrations by religious groups, which so intimidated the government that Iqbal Haider quickly declared support for the laws and dropped all talk of amendments.
It was around this time, while at university, that I first encountered the term “Kafkaesque”. It seemed designed for the blasphemy laws: if one person had said something blasphemous, their words could not be repeated, not even to a policeman or in a court of law, because voicing the blasphemous words would itself be an act of blasphemy, and so the accuser would become the accused. Those charged under the blasphemy law were immediately imprisoned and placed in solitary confinement, awaiting trial, for their own protection; failure by the police to do so, the logic went, left open the possibility that the accused would be killed either by their neighbours (if they weren’t imprisoned) or by other inmates (if they were imprisoned) because passions run so high over blasphemy charges.
The only ray of light in all this was the refusal by the Supreme Court to uphold a single guilty plea in all the blasphemy cases that came before it, though in reality this could mean that an accused person could be in solitary confinement for years and years while the case worked its way through the judicial system. The judges themselves were not immune to pressure: in 1997, Arif Iqbal Bhatti, a High Court judge, was assassinated after finding three men not guilty of blasphemy.
At a certain point, it started to seem impossible to imagine anything would change. Attempts to merely modify the law had failed – President Musharraf had been the latest head of state to suggest the possibility, only to backpedal furiously in the face of pressure from the religious right.The growing feeling in Pakistan that Islam was a religion under threat in the world meant that there was even less likelihood than before of anyone mounting a challenge to the status quo.
Into this situation strode Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab (the most powerful province in Pakistan). In an entirely unprecedented move, he went with his wife to visit a Christian woman in prison, Aasia Bibi, who had been in solitary confinement for over a year after an altercation with a group of Muslim women, who had refused to drink from the same glass of water as her because they considered her “untouchable”. These women later claimed Aasia Bibi had spoken blasphemous words in the course of the fight, and she was taken away to solitary confinement and later found guilty by the lower court.
Salman Taseer promised that Aasia Bibi would receive a presidential pardon. He also called the blasphemy law “a black law” and pointed out that it was man-made, not God-made. President Zardari, whose backing Taseer claimed to have, started to dither. No presidential pardon was immediately forthcoming, and the judiciary (already at loggerheads with Zardari for entirely separate reasons) ruled that he had no right to grant a presidential pardon until the appeals process was exhausted.
While Taseer continued to rail against the blasphemy law his own party deserted both him and Sherry Rehman, the already out-of-favour minister who had tabled a bill to amend the laws. The law minister, Babar Awan, insisted there was no possibility of changing the laws, and the interior minister Rehman Malik went one better and said that he would personally kill anyone who blasphemed. The rightwing press – who make Fox News look left-wing by comparison – applauded this stance and condemned Taseer.
“I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing” Taseer tweeted on 31 December. Four days later he was dead, gunned down by one of his own security guards, who said he did it because of Taseer’s stand on the blasphemy law. For this, the murderer has become a hero in large parts of Pakistan – when he arrived in court to be arraigned, lawyers threw rose petals at him. Near the same time, Taseer’s sons were throwing rose petals on their father’s grave. Absent from the grave site was the head of Taseer’s party, and the country’s president, Asif Ali Zardari. It was clear that, rather than doing the only decent thing and repealing the blasphemy law in honour of Taseer’s memory, the government wanted to put as much distance as possible between itself and the memory of the bravest man in its party.
It was left to Chaudhury Shujaat Hussain, a conservative politician from the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid), to say that amendments were needed to prevent abuse of the blasphemy law. At the time, this seemed the best anyone could hope for – not to touch the law itself, but to make it very difficult for anyone to register an accusation of blasphemy against someone else. But even the faint hope of such procedural changes dimmed as the weeks went by. On 30 January, Hussain’s political party and other centre-right parties joined the right-wing religious groups in a massive rally demanding that the blasphemy laws remain untouched. The head of the JUI (F) publicly declared that the newly appointed governor of the Punjab should visit Taseer’s assassin in prison – just as Taseer had visited Aasia Bibi.
A few days after this, Prime Minister Gilani announced that Sherry Rehman had agreed to withdraw her ‘private member’s bill’ calling for amendments to the law, in keeping with the PPP’s policy of leaving the law untouched. Politically isolated and under threat from extremists, Rehman – who weeks earlier had seen a 25,000 person strong rally march through her hometown of Karachi declaring her an enemy of Islam – said she would stand by her party’s decision.
Through all this, the newspapers continued to carry stories of people charged under the blasphemy law, including a schoolboy who was reported to the authorities by an examination board for allegedly blasphemous remarks he had written on an examination paper. At the beginning of March, Pakistan’s minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated and the Taliban claimed responsibility. He was a Christian and the only non-Muslim in the cabinet. In January, Bhatti had told AFP: “During the Aasia Bibi case, I constantly received death threats. Since the assassination of Salman Taseer … these messages are coming to me even publicly. The government should register cases against all those using hate speech”. The Kafkaesque nightmare continues.
The News, Dec 4: Finally, the bill that shall give birth to a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is on the National Assembly’s to-do List. Though it will still take some time to pass the bill in both houses, have approval of the President and put the Commission in place, yet it is good news. Many nations have found NHRCs useful for: strengthening norms and values based on human dignity and rights, reducing burden on the justice delivery system and dealing with rigidity of obsolete laws. As ‘The Statement of Object and Reasons’ attached to this bill explains, 56 countries have this arrangement in place recommended by several UN bodies and international treaties.
Besides the significance of reporting this development to the UN Human Rights Council’s session in October 2012 that shall review human rights situation of Pakistan (second time during the incumbency of this government), forming a human rights institution will have an added value in the present circumstances of Pakistan. There is a tremendous potential in this proposition as it seeks to build an institution over universally agreed upon standards of rights and liberties. Minus any expediencies and bureaucratic hurdles, a truly independent and effective NHRC can give new life to the dream for a democratic and autonomous Pakistan, much beyond the political rhetoric.
Nevertheless, it would be a big challenge for the NHRC to function and deliver in the midst of feeble government machinery, massive human rights abuses and high expectations. Just imagine the flood of complaints that is bound to pour in the good offices of the proposed Commission, with given misunderstanding among the citizens on the difference between rights and charity.
The 11 member body is going to need an elaborate arrangement and mechanism to process and respond to a huge number of complaints of human rights violations. While an adequate number of motivated and skilled staff is a must, the provincial governments must either be required to provide an outreach infrastructure to match the needs of a large demographic and geographic spread as Pakistan or legislate to form such Commissions at provincial levels as well. India, for instance, has one for each of its States besides a NHRC. The Provincial autonomy will have to be given a due regard, however, parochial approaches will have to be discouraged. The South Korean NHRC model would be also good to look at that dealt with the aftermath of prolonged autocratic rules in their country.
The impact of this initiative will largely depend on the role assigned to this institution, its formation and autonomy with regard to rules of business. A clause in the bill that requires NHRC to report to the government, which would be some ministry, looks an impediment as far as autonomy of the new entity. It would serve the purpose well if the proposed Commission should only report to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Rights once a year, in collaboration with but without the approval of any ministry.
With the experiences at hand of such Committees and Commissions in the past that could deliver a little and met enormous difficulties owing to the lack of financial and legal autonomy, the parliament will have to abridge these gaps in the bill. Without restricting the mandate of NHRC in the area of human rights, choices will have to be made with regard to its terms of reference. A distinction in gross and systematic human rights violation will help the course of action and modes operandi of remedial as well as investigative work of the Commission. Bringing Directorate of Human Right under the NHRC would be logical. Apart from the logistics and modalities there are challenges regarding the conceptual issues and education of the citizens in human rights?
The biggest challenge is about building a culture for human rights in social, legal and political systems that have become averse to rights and freedoms. What plans the well-intentioned people in the government and in civil society have to go about this? If the political parties claim a commitment to peoples’ rights, this commitment needs to be reflected in serious and result oriented actions.
Along with the proposed NHRC, we need a greater commitment in the form of a parliamentary pledge that this country will never have a law that contravenes the rights of the people of Pakistan, that the country will get rid of discrimination in whatsoever form and manifestation. That equality of citizens is not going to be a bookish concept but it will become part of daily life.
Once the NHRC becomes a reality the two big political parties — PPP and PMLN — can congratulate themselves for having achieved another goal set out in the Charter of Democracy (CoD). As far as institutional reforms, Pakistan also needs to have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, something that COD pledged to establish as well. Issues concerning transitional justice are a cause of lurching confusion; be it May 2nd incident or other tragic incidents in the life of the nation. There is a long way to go in structural, institutional and sectoral reforms, through reforming laws and policies. We better make a resolute start and catch up with time.
The writer is executive head of the National Commission for Justice and Peace established by the Catholic Church in Pakistan. He studied Law, Political Science and Rural Development and has been associated with human rights and peace building work for the past twenty four years. He can be reached email@example.com
KARACHI – Civil society organisations have condemned the November 7 slaying of three Hindus in Shikarpur District, Sindh Province, calling the murders an extremist effort to destroy Sindh’s secular and Sufi fabric.
Three Hindu men, including two doctors, were gunned down November 7 in Char. A Muslim cleric incited Bhayo tribesmen to attack them because they had intervened to help two young Hindu men accused of assaulting a Muslim girl, local media reported.
Denunciation of the violence was swift and came from all levels of society and government.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani strongly condemned the “abhorrent murder” and directed authorities to bring those responsible for the killings to justice. Gilani told Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah November 9 that the “perpetrators must be arrested and the law must take its course,” media reported.
Police have arrested 11 of 15 suspects and are pursuing the other four, media reported.
Forced Conversions :
On November 11, more than a dozen representatives of various organisations – including the Pakistan Medical Association, the Pakistan Hindu Council (PHC) and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan – appeared at the Karachi Press Club and other press clubs and demanded the government protect all minorities.
They expressed concerns over the kidnapping of Hindus in Sindh and Balochistan, forced conversions to Islam, and harassment.
“The Prophet Muhammad didn’t convert anyone forcibly. How could His followers could do the complete opposite?” asked Dr. Samreena Hashmi, president of the Pakistan Medical Association Sindh.
“There is an unfortunate trend of converting Hindus, and in these days, a number of cases have emerged in which girls from the community are forced to convert,” she said.
Her contention was supported by a scholar and a human rights group.
“People of all sects and religions have been living in Sindh peacefully for centuries,” she said, charging that the slaying of the three Hindus represented a conspiracy to divide Sindh along sectarian lines.
“In recent years, hundreds of Hindu girls have been forcibly converted or encouraged to marry Muslims, threatening the secular colour of Sindh society,” Dilshad Bhutto, a Sindhi intellectual, told Central Asia Online, adding that religious groups and institutions have extended moral and financial support to such practices.
In a November 11 statement, the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission warned of “very common” forced conversion of Hindu women to Islam in Sindh.
Target killings force docotrs to emigrate :
Targeted killings of doctors are a problem Hashmi said, adding that last year extremists and extortionists killed 8-10 physicians.
“People of all sects and religions have been living in Sindh peacefully for centuries,” she said, charging that the slaying of the three Hindus represented a conspiracy to divide Sindh along sectarian lines.
An increase in faith-based violence, especially in Sindh in the past few years, has compelled members of the Hindu community to migrate to other countries, said Dr. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, patron in chief of the PHC and former member of the Sindh Assembly.
The frequency of kidnapping Hindus for ransom has risen alarmingly in recent years, forcing many families to emigrate to India and other countries, media reports suggest. One high-profile Hindu who fled is Ram Singh Sodho, a former member of the Sindh Assembly who resigned his seat and took refuge in India following threats from militant groups.
Nobody has compiled statistics on how many Hindus have fled Pakistan fearing for their lives, Vankwani said. However, more than 1,000 such families have left Sindh in recent years, he said.
Hindus, Christians and other religious minorities comprise about 5% of Pakistan’s population, according to official statistics.
Situation worsens since 2007
The situation in Sindh has markedly worsened for Hindus since 2007, Vankwani said, complaining of an increase in targeted killings, extortion, looting, kidnapping, religion-based discrimination, and troubles linked to their places of worship.
The deterioration reversed improvements in tolerance that occurred nationwide from 1999 to 2007, he said.
“The Hindu community has been in Sindh for the last 1,000 years and has major shares in the cotton and rice industry,” he told Central Asia Online. “Also, the community is the highest taxpayer, but today we are being targeted simply because we are peace-loving citizens.”
Extremism stems from the militancy and drives killings and other attacks on minorities, said Anees Haroon, women’s rights activist and head of the Women’s Action Forum.
“It is high time for political parties, civil society, enlightened religious scholars and media to act together to prevent such insanity in the interfaith tranquil province of Sindh,” she said.