Rehman Chishti is MP for Gillingham and Rainham.
This week Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, is visiting London. One of the issues that I have urged the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to raise is the reform of Pakistan’s outdated blasphemy laws. These have been used to persecute and prosecute the Christian community and they tarnish Pakistan’s name and reputation.
These laws are, as the Minister admitted during my recent debate on this subject in Parliament, “dangerous” and “open to abuse for personal gain”.
Under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, victims can face life imprisonment or even the death sentence. They were expanded during the 1980s by General Zia Ul Haq, who added several clauses including sections that stated anyone who defamed the Prophet had to be killed.
They are often used to punish minorities and to settle personal vendettas. The shocking figures demonstrate their wide spread abuse. In the past 15 years, 1274 people have been charged under the laws in comparison with 9 reported cases between 1929 and 1982.
Pakistan now has the largest number of prisoners of belief with at least 14 individuals on death row and 19 more serving life sentences, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Several high profile cases show how these laws have been misapplied. For example, Mohammad Asghar, a vulnerable British national with a history of mental illness, was sentenced to death in January. The court failed to take into account his illness and authorities have restricted access to independent medical experts.
Many readers will know of the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian, who has been languishing in a prison since June 2009 after receiving a death sentence for allegedly blaspheming the Prophet following a dispute with fellow farm workers. Bibi’s case is still awaiting an appeal but has been postponed numerous times.
But even the justice system cannot protect these victims. In Pakistan, just an accusation of blasphemy can lead to violence against the innocent. There are too many cases where those acquitted face the injustice of the mob, such as Ghulam Abbas who was pulled from a police station and beaten to death, his body burned.
If Asia Bibi is ever released, then her life will be forever in danger. Her family is already in hiding after receiving death threats, and there is a real danger she could be murdered or poisoned in prison.
Recently, there were reports of rioting when Sawan Masih, another Christian, was sentenced to death for blasphemy. Dozens of Christian homes and two churches were set on fire.
I know that reform will be difficult in Pakistan. Let us not forget that those who have spoken out, such as the former Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and politician Salmaan Taseer, have found their own lives sadly cut short. But I do not think that it is impossible.
Changes are needed to take blasphemy cases away from the lower courts which are susceptible to intimidation and put them in the hands of the higher courts. Specialist prosecutors and judges should be appointed to deal with these cases. Pakistan already has special terrorist courts, there could be specialised courts dealing with blasphemy cases. These are short term changes, whilst in the long term these laws must be abolished.
Prosecutions could also be authorised by a body in the Ministry of Law so that once an allegation has been made to the police all the facts and evidence can be assessed before an individual is charged.
As Prime Minister Sharif has said, the UK is one of Pakistan’s closest allies. We can, as an ally, use our influence to urge the country to reform the outdated laws which deprive people of their basic human rights.
Our foreign policy towards Pakistan should promote respect for human rights, for freedom of religion and for belief. I hope that the Prime Minister will make the case for reform when Sharif is our guest in London.