Assassinated Pakistani Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was a recipient of the 2012 John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights Award. CNS photo

Champions of human rights - Shahbaz Bhatti and Susana Trimarco

  • March 22, 2012

OTTAWA - The Canadian government has recognized two outstanding defenders of religious freedom and human rights when awards were granted to the assassinated Pakistani Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and Argentinian anti-trafficking activist Susana Trimarco.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird presented the awards at the 2012 John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights Award ceremony Mar. 14 at the former Ottawa City Hall.

“Minister Bhatti declared he would dedicate his life ‘to struggle for human equality, for justice, for religious freedom, and to uplift and empower the religious minorities,’” said Baird in a speech at the ceremony. “Minister Bhatti took steps in support of religious minorities, launching a national campaign to promote interfaith harmony, proposing legislation to ban hate speech and literature, and proposing comparative religion as a curriculum subject.”

Baird noted Bhatti spoke out despite risks to his own safety and was only 42 when he was murdered.

International Christian Voice founder and chairman Peter Bhatti accepted the award on behalf of his brother, who was ambushed by gunmen a year ago, only a few weeks after visiting Ottawa and meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and several cabinet ministers.

Peter Bhatti said Harper’s promise during the last election to create the Office of Religious Freedom “was inspired by Shahbaz’s life.” Consultations are underway to establish the office in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

After his brother’s assassination, “we had only two choices,” Peter Bhatti said. “We could give victory to the enemy by abandoning his mission or follow in his footsteps.” he said.

Shahbaz Bhatti, a Roman Catholic, was the only Christian in the Pakistani government, and fought against that country’s blasphemy laws, often used to target Christians and other minorities.

The other Diefenbaker award recipient, Susana Trimarco, has also faced death threats in her efforts to stop human trafficking and rescue its victims, a journey that began with the kidnapping of her daughter Marita Verón, then 23, in April 2002.

“In the search for her daughter, Ms. Trimarco began a personal quest that revealed a network of brothels run by traffickers across Argentina and as far away as Spain,” Baird said. “She discovered many women and girls who were victims of human trafficking.”

“Braving a number of threats to her life, she has continued her investigations into the illegal sex trade and established the foundation in her daughter’s name to help victims of human trafficking reinsert themselves back into society,” he said.

The foundation has rescued 150 human trafficking victims. It raises awareness through the media; provides training to judges, prosecutors and police and has successfully advocated for changes in laws concerning trafficking, including Argentina’s anti-human trafficking legislation passed in 2008, he said.

In Spanish, Trimarco told the gathering, which attracted over 150 diplomats, MPs and other invited guests, of her pleasure and pride in receiving such a distinction from Canada. Human trafficking had struck her in a deeply personal place, she said, adding that she will pursue her commitment to human rights for the rest of her life. She has still not found her missing daughter.

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