I need you… These are the words of Asia Bibi, a woman whose story has touched the lives of millions and has renewed the debate on religious freedom and human rights from Pakistan all the way to up to the United Nations.
As praciticing Catholics, Ms. Bibi and her family are a minority in Ittan Wali, a village composed entirely of muslims. This fact, led to growing tensions between her and the other women in her village.
On June 14, 2009, she was accused of blasphemy by her neighbour for offering a glass of water to a woman who appeared to be troubled by something and who was glad to accept it. At that moment, her neighbour shouted that the woman should not accept the glass since Ms. Bibi had apparently contaminated the well’s water by being Christian. For this «crime» she was severely beaten and brought to the police station where the village mollah gave her two choices: convert to Islam or die.
Her trial at the regional court of Nankana was short and swift. To the great pleasure of the three mollahs in attendance, Asia Bibi became the first and only woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in the last century in Pakistan.
The religious tensions continued in Pakistan with the assasination of the Muslim Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer and the Catholic Minister of Minorities,Shabaz Bhatti, both advocated the repeal of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. To this day, publicly condeming blasphemy laws or defending Ms. Bibi is an automatic death sentence. Any internal reform of Pakistan’s judicial system has been surpressed by the threat of violence leaving the international community as the only voice capable of exerting pressure on Pakistani society.
I heard of Ms. Bibi’s story for the first time during a meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Forum of the Americas (FIPA). An association that I founded and presided over for 5 years. Our role is to promote and foster democracy, human rights and cooperation between all states of the Americas.
During this meeting, Ms. Bibi’s story struck a cord with FIPA’s Women’s Commission who decided to table a motion demanding the release of Asia Bibi on the basis of human rights in accordance with the principles laid out in the Univeral Declaration of Human rights of which Pakistan is a signatory.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee recently adopted Comment no. 34 which is based on the recommendations of the European Center for Law & Justice stating that: ”since any restriction on freedom of expression constitutes a serious curtailment of human rights, it is not compatible with the Covenant for a restriction to be enshrined in traditional, religious or other such customary law.”
Ms. Bibi’s case illustrates the dangers of religious extremism and intolerance and how the international community can combat terrorism and intolerance by pressuring non compliant countries to adopt and implement a set of clear goals and objectives that promote human rights and religious freedoms.
As Human Rights Watch points out, Pakistan’s institutions lack independence and their current legal framework favours religious extremism rather than human rights. If Pakistan is to become a free and open democracy it must immediately begin reforming its judicial and legal system. The judicial system in Pakistan must achieve an arm’s lenght distance from religious leaders, the military and the political elite. Furthermore, better training must be given to all security forces to protect rather than persecute religions freedoms and human rights.
Second, the Pakistani government must immediately repeal blasphemy laws and stand up to religious extremists who continously defy principles of human rights and democracy as a threat to their goals of controlling Pakistan with fear and repression. Pakistan has an obligation to the international community as a member of the United Nations and a responsibility to implement social and economic development in the 21st century.
Third, terrorism, extremism and poverty can all be combatted with a serious and substantial investment in education in Pakistan. Pakistan’s literacy rate is 58% and dips below 20% in rural communities. Illeteracy contributes to discrimination and facilitates the propagation of extremism. Pakistan needs to increase its supervision of Madrasah’s and monitor the curriculum to ensure that it is free of content that is contrary to international law and human rights.
Finally, religious minorities need to have an increased participation in Pakistani society with their inclusion in governement, civil service, industry and civil society.
As the international community increases its pressure on Pakistan we can only hope that they chose to open themselves to the outside rather than close themselves off from the world. The fate of Pakistan’s evolution as a society lies entirely on its ability to reform and spare the life of a poor, uneducated, farm girl named Asia Bibi.