Red Wednesday will be commemorated in the UK on Wednesday November 28th when churches, schools and public buildings will be lit red – to express solidarity with those persecuted for their faith. This year many will focus on the plight of Asia Bibi who has been exonerated by Pakistan’s highest court, having suffered nine years of incarceration – with the death penalty hanging over her. Now, she has been forbidden to leave Pakistan and the UK has declined to offer her asylum
Last night, Venice lit their city red and highlighted the plight of Asia Bibi
Topical Oral Question: November 20th 2018
20 November 2018
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what response they have made to requests to assist in the (1) safe passage and resettlement of, and (2) granting of asylum to Asia Bibi and her family.
My Lords, the release of Asia Bibi will be very welcome news to her family and to all those who have campaigned for her freedom. We welcome the ongoing assurances that the Government of Pakistan have given on keeping her and her family safe. As a matter of policy, and in accordance with our duty of confidentiality, the Government do not comment on individual cases. Departing from this policy may put individuals and their family members in danger.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is it not passing strange that while other Governments, 200 parliamentarians and the leader writers of national newspapers have all spoken powerfully and clearly calling for asylum to be granted to Asia Bibi, we take Trappist vows of silence? Recalling that Shahbaz Bhatti, who was the Minister for Minorities, and Salmaan Taseer, who was the Muslim governor of Punjab, were murdered for insisting on the innocence of Asia Bibi, does the Minister share my huge admiration for Pakistan’s Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar and Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, both of whom I met recently in Islamabad, who courageously and with great integrity acquitted and exonerated Asia Bibi, who was wrongfully sentenced to death and incarcerated for nine years? Does not their refusal to be dictated to by lynch mobs while we fail to offer asylum because of what Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, says is a fear of reprisals, undermine our belief in justice, human rights, the rule of law and religious freedom, and endanger us falling foul of, and succumbing, to blackmail?
I know the noble Lord will understand that I cannot comment on most of the points that he has made.
I cannot, my Lords. Our primary concern is the safety and security of Asia Bibi and her family, and we want to see a swift resolution of the situation. A number of countries are in discussion about providing a safe destination once the legal process is complete. Therefore, it would not be right to comment further at this stage. The noble Lord also talked about religious freedom. I welcome the opportunity to say that we continue to urge all countries to guarantee the rights of all citizens, particularly the most vulnerable, in accordance with international standards.
Does not the hesitation of the Government in this sense, either because of a fear of community backlash or because of perceived dangers to our high commission staff, speak volumes about their human rights commitment? Surely as far as Pakistan is concerned, the deal reached with the extremists by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, tells us something about his human rights credentials and those of the Government of Pakistan.
Noble Lords can draw their own conclusions in this situation, but our prime concern is the safety and security of Asia Bibi and her family and we want a swift resolution of the situation. As I said earlier, I do not want to comment further because I do not want any individual or their family members to be put in danger.
My Lords, the Minister is in a very difficult position because the Government feel unable to speak. However, it is not just Christians who are suffering from these blasphemy laws but other groups of Muslims and other religious minorities. What efforts are Her Majesty’s Government making to put pressure on the Pakistani Government to ensure that these blasphemy laws do not continue unjustly to affect these communities?
My Lords, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, we continue to urge all countries to guarantee the rights of all citizens in accordance with international standards. Our current position on minorities in Pakistan is set out in the Home Office country policy and the information note that we published, Pakistan: Christians and Christian Converts, which provides background, but it is important that each case involving asylum is considered on its individual facts and merits.
My Lords, while there may be things that the Government can do or say behind the scenes, and we hope they are doing so, surely the Minister is not trying to cast doubt on the fact that if someone arrived directly from Pakistan into this country who had been through the experiences that Asia Bibi has been through and faced the threat that she now faces, they would have an irrefutable claim for asylum under international law.
I am not trying to cast doubt on anything. Obviously I will not talk about individual cases. Anyone who arrives in this country and seeks asylum is dealt with on a case-by-case basis. I make the general point that this country has been generous over decades and indeed centuries to people coming here to seek our asylum and take refuge. I do not think the attitude of this country towards people who need our refuge should be in any doubt.
My Lords, the Conservatives have not had a chance to ask a question on this subject so I think it is their turn.
My Lords, I fully endorse the comments of the right reverend Prelate. I believe that it is not just time for those blasphemy laws not to be operated in a harsh way, it is time for those laws to be brought to an end. There have been press reports that Asia Bibi, if granted asylum in the United Kingdom, would potentially not be safe from some communities here. I wish to give my noble friend and this House full confidence. As someone who is deeply connected to British Muslim communities, I assure her that they are fully supportive of any asylum claim that Asia Bibi may have and that our country may afford her, and that she would be supported as she would be by all other communities in this country.
I thank my noble friend for her point on the various differing media reports on what this country might or might not do. Clearly every asylum claim is treated on its own merits. As I say, and I am sure my noble friend will attest to this, we have a long and proud tradition of granting asylum in this country to those who need it.
Why We Should Give Asylum To Asia Bibi
After a visit, in 2015, to detention centres in Thailand, where I saw some of the thousands of escaping Pakistani Christians and Ahmadis, caged like animals, and subsequently filmed by Chris Rogers for a BBC documentary, I chaired an Inquiry under the auspices of the All Party Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
In 2016, following evidence taking sessions and witness statements, we published a Report and submitted it to the Home Office, Foreign Office and Pakistan High Commission.
The Report’s central finding was that the Home Office is wrong to suggest that what is happening to the Christian minority is simply discrimination rather than persecution – and we highlighted the impact that this choice of word has on everything from asylum claims to humanitarian aid.
The flow of refugees has intensified after the assassinations, in 2011 of the Christian Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, and his Muslim friend, Salmaan Taseer, Governor of the Punjab, both murdered, after speaking out against the wrongful imprisonment, sentenced to death by hanging of an illiterate woman, a berry picker, and mother of five, Aasiya Noreen, commonly known as Asia Bibi.
In 2009 she had beenarrested after triggering a dispute with Muslim women when she, an “infidel,” took a sipof water from a communal cup while harvesting a hot field. This is a throw-back to the untouchability of the caste system.
Asia Bibi was accused of blaspheming. And sentenced under section 295-C of the 1986 blasphemy law – a capital offence.
At the time theMuslim cleric Maulana Yousaf Qureshi announced a bounty of 500,000 Pakistani Rupees to anyone who would kill her.
The deaths of Minister Bhatti and Governor Taseer werethe curtain raiser for an orgy of bombings, killings, rapes, imprisonment and abductions.
We should never forget the sacrifice of these two men who gave their lives for their people. In accepting political office Bhatti knew it could cost him his life.
Last month I visited Lahore and Islamabad, met many who knew both of those great men.
The Lahore Bar Council told me tat the unreformed Blasphemy Laws have frequently been used for revenge, for mendacious and vexatious purposes – with prosecutions having nothing to do with Blasphemy.
Those laws, following accusations, have led to more than 60 deaths and dozens of communal attacks.
I do not blaspheme and do not defend blasphemy – but laws that are based on a wholly disproportionate use of the death sentence; laws which are regularly appropriated for wrongful purposes; and laws that fail to recognise the place of the rightnot to believe or to hold a different belief does not make for a good or genuinely respectful society
In 1947, a year before the country signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Pakistan’s greatly admired founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah crafted a constitution which promised to uphold plurality and diversity and to protect all its citizens.
Jinnah said: “You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State…Minorities, to whichever community they may belong, will be safeguarded. Their religion, faith or belief will be secure. There will be no interference of any kind with their freedom of worship. They will have their protection with regard to their religion, faith, their life and their culture. They will be, in all respects, the citizens of Pakistan without any distinction of caste and creed”.
Pakistan was founded on principles of equality and justice.
What is now done to its own citizens, and done with impunity, makes a mockery of those high ideals.
The white in the nation’s flag is there to represent the country’s minorities but as those minorities suffer and Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies and frightened leaders fail to speak or to act justly its flag has been dragged low.
Failure to act jeopardises the country’s future and undermines the prospect of a diverse and respectful society.
In the face of a systematic campaign of visceral hatred Pakistan’s contemporary leaders have done little to uphold Jinnah’s vision – and, equally, there is little evidence that more than £2.8 billion of British aid, given over the past two decades, is doing anything to support beleaguered minorities, often the poorest of the poor, or to promote religious freedom or peaceful co-existence.
Since 2002 on 114 occasions I have raised questions or made interventions about Pakistan – the first, in 2002 when I asked the Government whether they agreed that “a good test of the democratic credentials of any government is the way they treat their minorities and uphold human rights?”
I highlighted that“over the past 12 months in Pakistan there have been 39 deaths, 100 injuries and nine attacks on churches, church buildings, hospitals and schools? Does she recognise that one of the continuing sources of persecution against that tiny minority in Pakistan has been the blasphemy laws?”
Nine years later, in 2011, in the aftermath of Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder – for which no one has ever been brought to justice – Ministers were telling me:
“The issue of religious tolerance is part of a wider attack on Pakistan’s democratic tradition. It is essential Pakistan supports political freedom wherever it is threatened.”
“We see Pakistan as a country to which we are bound by longstanding ties, but also a country where we must put forward our values in a strong and effective way”
If a country cannot bring to justice the killer of a Government Minister what chance do the country’s persecuted, beleaguered and fleeing minorities have?
The following year, in 2012 I raised the killing ofShugufta Baber, a teacher at the Convent High School in Okara, her two sons and her sister Samina Bibi; the vulnerability of Christian women; and the failure to use UK aid to help beleaguered minorities.
Consider again that in the past twenty years we have given Pakistan £2.8 billion of aid – – the equivalent of £383,000 each and every single day. It is our biggest bilateral aid programme.
Yet precious little of this aid reaches the poorest of the poor in the country’s minorities – because the Government say they are“religion blind” and do not “discriminate”.
Every time I raise this issue they repeat the same mantra that they don’t“discriminate on grounds of religion”.
Yet Pakistan’s religious minorities are actively discriminatedagainst– victims of violent persecution.
They live in abject conditions in slum“colonies” which DFID says it doesn’t even send its officials to visit. Why? Because it doesn’t discriminate.
How does this deliberate blind spot square with the fate of three Christian women from a village near Pattoki whose case I raised in 2013 when they were publicly beaten and humiliated?
Later that year I commended Baroness Warsi, then Minister for saying
“that senior politicians in countries like Pakistan have a “duty” to denounce persecution and to set a standard for tolerance.”
In that same year 83 people were killed in a twin suicide bombing at the end of a service at All Saints Church in Peshawar.
Yet the Home Office say it’s not persecution and DFID says it won’t discriminate in favour of these minorities.
In 2014 I urged the Government to seek“a fair and just trial in the cases of Savan Masih, Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar, sentenced to death for blasphemy”
That same year I again raised the case of Asia Bibi, the failure to bring Minister Bhatti’s murderers to justice and the burning to death in Kot Radha Kishan of a Christian couple following allegations of blasphemy and in 2015 challenged an ideology that could lead “to the burning alive in a kiln of a Christian couple in Pakistan by a mob of 1,300 people while their young children were forced to watch.”
In 2016 I raised the murder of Khurram Zaki whocampaignedagainst sectarian violence and religious extremism.
In the same year at least 72 people were killedand more than 300 injured when a suicide bomb ripped through the parking space of a crowded park in Lahore where Christians were celebrating Easter Sunday. A Taliban faction claimed responsibility.
Later in 2016 I asked how we were reacting “following the statement of the Chairman of the Pakistan Senate’s Standing Committee on Religious Affairs that forced conversion of girls is taking place “across the country on a daily basis”, and (2) about reports of humiliation, torture and false imprisonment of girls from Christian backgrounds by police officers.”
And I asked aboutthe honour killing of women, the exclusion of minority communities from full citizenship, and hate material in school text books – an issue I subsequently pursued at meetings with Ministers from the Foreign Office and Department for International Development.
In 2017 I asked the Home Office about the admission to the UK of hate preachers – one of whom celebrated the murder of Salmaan Taseer – and asked about the role of the Commonwealth; the case of Taimoor Raza who had been sentenced to death after postings on social media; and the lynching of Mashal Khan, a student of Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, for allegedly publishing blasphemous content online and expressing liberal and secular views
Earlier this year I asked about the evidence published by the Aurat Foundation of 1,000 forced conversions every year; about forced marriages in Sindh; the monitoring of madrassas known to promote hatred of minorities.
On April 18th, Lord Ahmad, the Government’s Envoy for Religious Freedom, wrote to me about the beating to death of a Christian, Sunil Saleem and said the Government didn’t“tend to raise specific cases”.
Well why not?
I also asked the Home Office Minister, Baroness Williams, whether she believed “it is safe to deport families, including children, to Pakistan when there is evidence that they have received death threats due to their religious beliefs; when they last considered whether there is persecution of particular minorities in Pakistan; and what conclusions they reached.”
She replied that
“Claims are considered against any relevant caselaw and the background of the latest available country information”…“Crucially, decision makers must still consider the individual facts and merits of a particular case to determine whether or not that person qualifies for asylum.”
In an oral exchange on October 15th I said that having“seen first-hand the abject, festering conditions in which many of the country’s religious minorities live, and having heard accounts of abduction, rape, the forced marriage of a nine year-old, forced conversion, death sentences for so-called blasphemy” – and I referred to the case of Asia Bibi and children being forced to watch as their parents were burned alive – I asked the Minister:“how can the Home Office, in all those circumstances, continue to say that what is happening in Pakistan to religious believers and humanists is merely discrimination, not persecution?”
In reply she said that “each application to our asylum system should be dealt with in terms of the persecution that people might face.”
But, that is the whole problem – notwithstanding everything I have just described, her own Department refuse to accept that there is persecution – and that is why asylum claims from these persecuted minorities are rarely allowed.
I therefore went on to ask specifically how many claims for asylum in the UK were successful in respect of religious minorities from Pakistan over the past five years.
The Minister said that 2,982 grants of asylum had been made but could not say how many came from religious minorities and that “the data required to answer the question is not recorded in a way that can be reported on accurately. …This data could only be obtained at disproportionate cost.”
This borders on the absurd. This question should be asked; the information recorded and available to Parliament.
Cases such as Asia Bibi’s reveal a serious problem in the UK’s Asylum Policy when it comes to Christians fleeing genuine persecution.
In hiding behind the pretext that it“doesn’t discriminate” it ends up doing exactly that and reneging on its promises and commitments to support and protect the most vulnerable. By way of example, in 2017, of the 7,060 Syrian refugees the United Nations High Commission for Refugees recommended to the UK a mere 25 were Christians (0.35 percent). And, of these, the Home Office only accepted eleven – meaning Christians made up only 0.23 percent of Syrian refugees resettled in the UK last year. So how many Pakistani Christians are among the 2982 given asylum in the UK last year?
And what of our craven refusal to offer asylum to Asia Bibi?
Recalling that Shahbaz Bhatti and Salmaan Taseer were both murdered for insisting on the innocence of Asia Bibi, I can feel nothing but huge admiration for Pakistan’s Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, and Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, both of whom I met in Islamabad last month and who, courageously, and with great integrity, acquitted and exonerated Asia Bibi – wrongfully sentenced to death and incarcerated for nine years
Their refusal to be dictated to by lynch mobs, by failing to offer asylum because of what Tom Tugendhat MP, the Chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee says is a fear of reprisals, makes a mockery of British values of justice, human rights, rule of law, and religious freedom.
The bravery of Pakistan’s Chief Justice and Supreme Court Judges who exonerated and cleared the name of Asia Bibi is in marked contrast to those, in Pakistan and here, who have been cowed by lynch mobs and threats of violence – including, sadly, our own Government.
And what signal does this response send about our concern, or lack of it, for the plight of the other forty people said to be on death row in Pakistan for alleged Blasphemy?
While the Government of Pakistan has capitulated to the extremists in Tehreek-e-Labbaik and tried to set aside the verdict of the Supreme Court – our duty is to stand with the Judges and the rule of law.
Weren’t Tom Tugendhat MP, Rehman Chishti MP – former Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party and Government Trade Envoy to Pakistan – who has resigned over the issue – and Lady Warsi – all correct in condemning this capitulation to lynch mobs?
Shouldn’t the Government have taken their cue from Dr. Taj Hargey, Imam of Oxford Islamic Congregation,that Asia Bibi should be granted asylum in the UK and who spoke of “the deafening silence” from British people of Pakistani origin and of “our collective shame in not preventing her cruel incarceration.”
The Government needs to say how it responds to Dr. Hargey; to key figures from their own Party; and how it intends to respond to the 200 parliamentarians and the 130,000 petitioners who have asked the Government to think again.
The letter from parliamentarians states:“We urge in the strongest possible terms the Government of Pakistan to guarantee safe passage for Asia, her family, and any of those under threat due to their part in the decision to acquit her, to any country that accepts them.”
The Times, in an editorial says that the silence of the British Government is “shameful” while a Daily Mail editorial says“This country has a proud tradition of taking in those who suffer religious persecution. Shunning Mrs. Bibi would make a mockery of that tradition.”
On whose side do we stand – the side of an innocent woman and the rule of law or on the side of the lynch mob?
On the side of those who whip up a frenzy of hate with demands made for executions and calls for the death of the courageous judges?
Or on the side of those who are unjustly persecuted?
Asia Bibi’s appeal for asylum is the litmus test. Are we willing to stand up to those who persecute or not?
The Life Of Asia Bibi – An Innocent Woman – Hangs In The Balance As Pakistan Faces the Lynch Mob
Sign the petition calling for this innocent woman to be allowed to leave Pakistan:
190 Parliamentarians issue an appeal to Imran Khan
BBC and Dutch reports of her release from prison:
After nine years in prison, Pakistan’s Supreme Court courageously found Asia Bibi to be innocent of Blasphemy charges that carried a death sentence.
Now, lynch mobs, defying the rule of law, have demanded her execution and have persuaded the Pakistan Government that she should be banned from leaving the country.
The Pakistan Government have also said that attempts can be made to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision.
This makes a mockery of the rule of law and, meanwhile, Asia Bibi – an innocent woman, a mother denied her freedom for nine years, continues to be held in custody.
Now her lawyer has had to flee the country – saying he fears for his life.
Dr.Taj Hargey, a Muslim Imam based in Oxford, was so right when he wrote in The Telegraph, yesterday that Asia Bibi should be granted asylum in the UK and spoke of “the deafening silence” from British people of Pakistani origin and of “our collective shame in not preventing her cruel incarceration.”
On whose side do we stand – the side of an innocent woman and the rule of law or on the side of the lynch mob?
Daily Mail editorial
Daily Telegraph letter
– More than 190 parliamentarians sign open letter to Pakistani Prime Minister
– Bibi’s life in danger every moment she remains in Pakistan
https://adfinternational.org/news/saved-from-death-row-pakistans-supreme-court-free-asia-bibi/ to see the full press release and the open letter quoted below signed by over 190 parliamentarians:
“We urge in the strongest possible terms the Government of Pakistan to guarantee safe passage for Asia, her family, and any of those under threat due to their part in the decision to acquit her, to any country that accepts them.”
Despite conflicting media reports, sources indicate that she has not yet been allowed to leave the country.