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Human rights commitments: ‘Govts must probe violence against religious minorities’

By Sarah Eleazar

Published: December 2, 2014

Saeed spoke of a case in which a woman had spent 10 years in a forced marriage. She was presented before a magistrate and a high court. STOCK IMAGE

LAHORE: Pakistan’s human rights record might be contentious on several levels but in March last year, at its Universal Periodic Review with the Human Rights Council, Pakistan was lauded for its “commitment” to defending human rights.

It had accepted 126 proposals put forward by member countries, rejected seven and claimed that 34 of them were pending.

The International Council of Jurists on Monday held a mid-term review of Pakistan’s implementation of its commitments made at the UPR.

The consultation will be followed by a mid-term implementation report discussing Pakistan’s progress in fulfilling its commitments made before the Human Rights Council.

Legal experts discussed opportunities for mid-term advocacy; discriminatory laws against religious minorities; violence against disadvantaged groups and their political participation; and how to address religious hatred and building inter-faith harmony.

Reema Omer, legal adviser for the ICJ, opened her talk by identifying five thematic areas in the UPR: women’s rights; freedom of religion; rights of the child; enforced and involuntary disappearances; freedom of expression and human rights defenders. She called on the state and advocacy groups to investigate attacks and violence against religious minorities and sects and bring those responsible to justice. She stressed the need for taking deterrent measures to combat discrimination against women, girls and religious minorities and work towards eliminating poverty among those groups.

The objective of the mid-term implementation report, she said, was to identify Pakistan’s obligations with respect to meeting these recommendations. The report will identify shortcomings and weaknesses in Pakistan’s 2012 UPR recommendations with the view to strengthen recommendations for the next review in April, 2017, as well.

Advocate Hammad Saeed, speaking on violence against religious minorities, pointed out several commitments and recommendations Pakistan had accepted in this regard, but failed to implement. He said in most cases of elopement and forced conversion, the concerns of minorities were completely disregarded at police stations. “Once a person [from a minority group] is forced into marriage, two certificates are produced: a marriage certificate and a certificate of conversion; followed by a statement before the magistrate, sometimes recorded under duress,” he said. Saeed spoke about the need to regulate issuance of conversion certificates, especially in the case of children. He said the regulatory body must scrutinise these certificates carefully. “But there’s a catch here, once a conversion certificate is produced and a statement registered before the magistrate, the non-Muslim victim cannot retract his or her statement – for that would be apostasy. There is no way out,” he said. He said instead of recording a statement before a magistrate in a court – a hostile environment for a victim – the statement could be recorded before social workers, women police officers or a member of the community considered compassionate. Another problem is the societal celebration that goes with converting a non-Muslim to Islam. “This needs to change,” he said.

Saeed spoke of a case in which a woman had spent 10 years in a forced marriage. She was presented before a magistrate and a high court. The high court judge took her to a separate room for counselling. He gave her two hours to make a decision. There she broke down and told the judge that her husband had told her that he would kill her family if she revealed that she was in a forced marriage.

“Rimsha Masih’s case is unique because she was a child and suffered from mental illness. Even the most right-wing elements would pause before accusing such a person of blasphemy,” he said. “But in the case of the British-Pakistani Muhammad Asghar, 70, who was medically proven schizophrenic and paranoid, the state was not that forthcoming even when he was shot and wounded in Adiala Prison, Rawalpindi,” he said. “Policemen guarding cells where blasphemy convicts are held are not allowed to bear arms. While the investigation committee traced the source of the violence to Mumtaz Qadri, it failed to identify the process through which violence manifests itself within the prison itself,” he said.

Saeed suggested that the state provide protection to the accuser and the accused persons in blasphemy cases the way they were protected in rape cases. “This prevents the accuser from mobilising people in support of his claims and protects minority groups from a possible backlash like in the Joseph Colony incident,” he said.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 2nd, 2014.

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