Asia Bibi -- the Pakistani Catholic woman who spent nearly a decade on death row after she was falsely accused of blasphemy — is pictured in Paris Feb. 26, 2020. CNS photo/Thomas Oswald, courtesy Aid to the Church in Need

Pakistan blasphemy law ‘costing lives’

By 
  • May 27, 2022

Canada can do more to counter Pakistan’s blasphemy law — a law that made refugees of the Younis family and thousands of others, whose lives are on hold in Bangkok and other places around the world — the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief told the All-Party Parliamentary Interfaith Caucus in an online presentation earlier this month.

University of Essex Professor of International Human Rights Law Ahmed Shaheed, who works pro-bono for the UN monitoring and promoting religious freedom around the world, singled out Pakistan’s blasphemy law as a particularly grave violation of human rights and religious freedom.

“That blasphemy law is creating havoc in Pakistan,” he said. “It’s costing lives.”

The mere existence of the law has emboldened extremists and politically-connected street gangs such as Tehreek-e-Labbaik. The blasphemy law has resulted in a breakdown of law and order in Pakistan, Shaheed said.

Between 1990 and 2019, 62 people were murdered by angry mobs because they faced an accusation of blasphemy in Pakistan, according to the 2019 annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Though the law carries a possible sentence of death for blasphemers, the death penalty option has not been used. Asia Bibi, now living in Canada, was sentenced to hang and held in prison for nearly nine years before Pakistan’s Supreme Court in 2018 overturned the decision citing insufficient evidence.

“Anti-blasphemy laws certainly work to undermine religious freedom,” Shaheed said.

As a leading voice for human rights in the international community, Canada can influence Pakistan’s legal framework and its assaults on religious freedom, said Shaheed. Canada’s approach to the issue should be “impact focused,” as opposed to representation on every international commission or body with a connection to the issue, he said.

The UN envoy suggested Canada apply “Magnitsky-type sanctions” on Pakistani politicians and others who promote blasphemy laws and prosecutions for political gain. Canada adopted its own Magnitsky law in 2017, known as the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act. It allows the government to target foreign nationals who are “complicit in gross violations of human rights; or are public officials or an associate of such an official, who are responsible for or complicit in acts of significant corruption.”

The act has been invoked on multiple occasions to single out Russian officials, investors and business leaders following the invasion of Ukraine.

Shaheed suggests social media platforms “also be held to account” for hate speech and false information intended to create hostility to religious communities and religious belief.

The Canadian government should also engage Pakistani parliamentarians who justify blasphemy laws and challenge the legal reasoning of Pakistani judges.

“Canada must be prepared to demonstrate its concern for people persecuted by these laws,” he said.

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