Pakistani Judges Convicting People of ‘Blasphemy’ Without Evidence, Says U.N. Expert

By Patrick Goodenough | May 30, 2012 | 4:28 AM EDT

U.N. special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul. (UN Photo by Jean-Marc Ferre)

( – A visiting U.N. human rights expert has drawn fresh attention to the abuses arising from Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, reporting that fear of reprisals result in intimidated judges bringing convictions without evidence while lawyers avoid taking up cases.

The criticism by Gabriela Knaul, a “special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers,” came at the end of an 11-day visit to Pakistan to study the country’s judicial system, the first by a U.N. human rights expert since 1999.

Pakistan generally manages to sidestep censure at the U.N. Human Rights Council, a body in which it wields substantial influence through its leadership of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). But although the post held by Knaul, a Brazilian judge, reports to the HRC, it is also independent.

Knaul will deliver a full report on her visit to the HRC later, but ended her trip with a press briefing in Islamabad at which she outlined her concerns over a range of issues.

“Threats, attacks, kidnappings and killings of lawyers should not be tolerated,” she said. “It was brought to my attention that some lawyers refuse to take up cases which are deemed sensitive as regards religion, customs or tradition out of fear of reprisals against themselves or their families.”

“Moreover, I am especially concerned regarding cases brought under the so-called ‘blasphemy law,’ as it was reported to me that judges have been coerced to decide against the accused even without supporting evidence,” Knaul continued.

“As for the lawyers, in addition to their reluctance to take up such cases, they are targeted and forced not to represent their clients properly.”

Knaul urged the government to look into setting up a special system to protect judges.

“Physical security is an essential condition for judges to be able to carry out their duties without hindrance or interferences.”

She also expressed concern that women in particular were being targeted by the blasphemy laws.

Among other issues she raised during the briefing was the fact that Pakistan’s constitution makes provision for two superior courts, one of them a body based on shari’a (Islamic law).

“I believe that the existence of two superior courts in the constitution is problematic and leaves space for interpretations which might be contradictory,” she said.

“I am also concerned about reports of conflicts being resolved by informal systems, often at the grass-root or community level,” Knaul added. “Such informal dispute settlement systems are deeply rooted in conservative interpretations of tradition and/or religion and lead to conflict resolution and punishments which are in contradiction with laws in Pakistan, fundamental rights recognized in the constitution, and international human rights standards.”

Pakistan’s penal code makes insulting Mohammed or desecrating the Qur’an criminal offenses punishable by death or life imprisonment. Opponents say they have long been misused to target Christians and other non-Muslim minorities – often to settle scores unrelated to religion.

The blasphemy laws have become a matter of growing international concern in recent years, prompted by the sentencing to death in late 2010 of Asia Bibi, a farm laborer and mother accused of insulting Mohammed, and then the assassination of two politicians who supported her, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti,  the only Christian in the federal cabinet.

Intimidated by radicals, the government backed away from tentative plans to amend the laws.

‘Most glaring omission’

Despite strong criticism of the abuses – most recently in its annual human rights report released last week – the Obama administration, like its predecessor, has refused to follow recommendations by an independent statutory body, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), to blacklist Pakistan as an egregious religious freedom violator.

Designation as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act would provide a range of tools, including sanctions, which the U.S. government could use to prod Islamabad to improve its record. The USCIRF has advised CPC status for Pakistan every year since 2002, to no avail.

Pakistan is just one of a number of countries the administration has declined to designate as CPCs despite USCIRF recommendation, but the commission views its exclusion in a particularly dim light.

“Pakistan is perhaps the State Department’s most glaring omission, as its government continues both to engage in and to tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious-freedom abuses,” chairman Leonard Leo and commissioner Katrina Lantos Swett wrote in a Columbia University Journal of International Affairs essay this month.

“The mere allegation of blasphemy has resulted in the lengthy detention of, and violence against, Christians, Ahmadis, Hindus, other religious minorities, as well as Muslims,” they wrote. “The law requires neither proof of intent nor evidence to be presented after allegations are made, and includes no penalties for false allegations. Charges are used to intimidate religious minorities or others with whom the accusers disagree or have financial or other disputes.”

Through its leadership of the OIC bloc of Islamic states Pakistan has played an influential role at the HRC, the Geneva-based U.N. body to which Knaul will report her findings.

OIC members account for almost 40 percent of the council’s membership, controlling 18 out of the total 47 seats in the current HRC. Along with non-Muslims autocracies such as China, Russia and Cuba, the Islamic states have frequently used bloc voting to counter Western initiatives and to promote an OIC agenda.

High up on that agenda has been the campaign against “religious defamation,” a drive which Islamic states says is necessary in the face of growing “Islamophobia” but which opponents see as an attempt to export blasphemy-type restrictions to non-Muslim countries.

Pakistan has been a member of the HRC since the council was created in 2006, and plans to run for another term later this year.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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