‘No Reprieve’ by Farieha Aziz

While Pakistan has been living under an increasingly murky sky for years, it has grown darker and more ominous since Aasiya Bibi’s conviction for alleged blasphemy in December 2010. Following that, close on the heels came the murders of Punjab Governor, Salmaan Taseer, and Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti. And it didn’t end there. The dark cloud of fear and intimidation has not receded. Since the two high-profile murders, there has been an alarming rise in the number of people accused of blasphemy as well as in the number of cases filed, and several other people – minorities and targets of sectarian wars among them – have fallen prey to vigilante justice and cold-blooded murder.

Not surprising then, that when the news of convicted blasphemer David Qamar Masih’s passing away while serving a jail term was received, it sounded alarm bells. Did he really die of a heart attack at age 52, as the jail authorities claimed, or was it yet another case of the law-enforcers playing judge, jury and executioner? Who can blame people for speculating, given the numerous instances where jail wardens or other prisoners have killed inmates in jail on charges of blasphemy. And if it is not in jail, it has been outside of it. On March 4, Mohammed Imran, who was acquitted of blasphemy charges a year ago, was shot dead on the outskirts of Rawalpindi.

In the most recent case that was reported on March 26, a man by the name of Yaqoob was accused of using abusive language against the Prophet (PBUH) in Gilgit. Announcements from mosques galvanised people from nearby houses, who took to the streets and dispersed only when the police arrested and booked the accused. This was preceded by a similar incident in Lahore’s Badami Bagh area, where a mob collected to burn down the Full Gospel Assembly (FGA) Church after clerics announced from their pulpits that the parishioners had burnt pages of the Holy Quran. While the police reached in time to prevent the mob’s attack, it did not arrest anyone – neither those attempting to commit arson, nor the clerics who were instigating murder. But that was not unprecedented. For example, the imam of the Mohabbat Khan mosque in Peshawar, who vociferously announced head money for Aasiya Bibi in the event of the court acquitting her, remains free.

The increasingly intolerant and dangerous prevailing climate can be gauged just by a glance at daily reports. In late January, a dispute between two sisters-in-law led to one, Amina, a Muslim, accusing the other, Zahira, a Christian, of blasphemy. Following the allegation, Zahira’s house was broken into and she and her mother were beaten. In early February, sectarian differences led to an attack on a religious procession, resulting in the death of two people. In mid-February, in Multan, a teacher who was accused of blasphemy by a student was not only suspended, but savagely beaten up by residents, instigated by mosque announcements and text messages, due to which he sustained life-threatening injuries.

Several cases have been reported in these three months where arrests have been made and people booked under 295-B (defiling the Quran) and 295-C (using derogatory language against the Prophet (PBUH)), and there have been convictions where courts have handed down life imprisonment and death sentences. In Multan, a prayer leader and his 20-year-old son were sentenced to life imprisonment for alleged blasphemy; in Bahawalpur, a sessions court put a man charged under 295-C and 298-A (use of derogatory language against holy personages) on death row, and another man was awarded a life sentence after he was found guilty of defiling the Quran by a sessions court.

Numerous other cases have been reported, many of them undoubtedly motivated more by personal rivalries and sectarian or religious differences than any real offence. As a leading religious scholar put it, “who would be foolhardy enough to risk his life by blaspheming in this climate – unless he/she is on a suicide mission.” Thus, when in February Muslim residents in Faisalabad charged Agnes Bibi, a Christian woman with blasphemy, and it later transpired this was in order to acquire a piece of land she held, it came as no surprise. In fact, today just about anything – from wearing a wooden pendant around one’s neck allegedly bearing “blasphemous” inscriptions against the Sahaba, removing a poster from outside of one’s shop, tying a shoe to a flag post with a holy symbol on it and even an exchange of SMSes – can be construed as blasphemy, and all these have actually been grounds for FIRs.

The question that begs to be asked then is, what kind of evidence is considered as proof or otherwise of the crime of blasphemy in a court of law? Are SMSes, sim cards, accounts by warring neighbours and the like enough proof of awarding people life imprisonment and death sentences? And what in the instance that an accused is not of sound mind, as in Karachi, where medical reports of a man accused of burning pages of the Holy Quran clearly indicated he was a psychiatric patient. Or for that matter, what of a minor, such as the 17-year-old who was charged with blasphemy for answers he wrote in an exam paper?

Since the introduction of the Blasphemy Law to Pakistan’s Penal Code – which it must be emphasised happened during the Zia era – to date, whenever any government has announced the intent to amend the Blasphemy Law to curb its abuse, religious groups have taken to the streets, vehemently denouncing the government’s proposition. Each time they have been successful in building pressure and forcing the government to back down from its intent. So, not surprisingly, this time too the religious lobby succeeded in making the PPP retreat from its avowed attempt to consider amending the law. So much so, that contrary to the facts, PPP members claimed no committee was ever constituted to even consider touching the law. Even more telling was how the party did not issue a forthright condemnation of the assassination of their governor and minister, till long after the events. In fact, it was not until late March, when President Zardari addressed parliament, that there was an official condemnation of the murders of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti.

But what next? Should this be interpreted as a sign that the government is finally ready to apprehend and try the killers, and put a stop to the abuse of the Blasphemy Law? Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s recent statement while speaking to Reuters in London would indicate so. He said “[the Blasphemy Law’s] misuse is being … taken into account and party leaders … will meet to try to reach a consensus on the law.” However, when he qualified this by stating this would happen “as proposed by Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman,” it left less room for optimism. While the Maulana stated earlier last month, “If a law is being misused against minorities, we are ready to discuss this (matter),” this came after blaming Governor Taseer for the fate he met because of what he said about the law, refusing to condemn slain minister Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder, and issuing warnings against amendments to the Blasphemy Law.

The question is, what form of abuse and what number of casualties will force state institutions to take cognisance of the criminal acts being aimed at its citizens? Hate-mongering, the creation of an atmosphere of threat and intimidation and the stymying of open discourse on the issue has led to the loss of several lives, government functionaries and common citizens alike.

While the government has miles to go in this regard, the onus is also on the judiciary. With powers to take suo moto action, why hasn’t it acted against those inciting violence or conversely, instructed the government to take action? Why does it confine itself to issuing notices only on issues like the NRO and the hiring and firing of government functionaries? How is it that the rule of law is not a concern?

Rights groups, activists and members of civil society have gone hoarse shouting about the abuse of the Blasphemy Law. When the words blasphemy and Taseer became taboo, they continued uttering them in the public sphere, condemning murder as it should be condemned, rather than inventing excuses for it in the name of religion. Breaking the silence on the issue of blasphemy and religious extremism, reaching out to fellow citizens and initiating a dialogue on this issue, and reclaiming public spaces increasingly being taken over by the religious right has been a burgeoning concern.

Citizens for Democracy (CFD), an umbrella group of citizens, labour unions and rights organisations, formed in December 2010 to lobby against the misuse of religion in politics, launched a letter campaign in March, seeking to do exactly that. The letter was addressed to the heads of state institutions and those in power, to demand that they uphold the rule of law, take action against murders and those who incite hate and murder, and ensure the protection of all citizens, especially against acts of vigilantism justified in the name of religion. While thousands of signatories from all walks of life responded to the call, the right-wing brigade has, by using the pulpit and the streets, managed to muster ever-growing and infinitely more numbers to demonstrate its strength.

So while civil society must continue to lobby, ultimately, change will have to be effected at many levels, not least among these the policy level, and time is already running out.

Farieha Aziz is currently an assistant editor at Newsline and has been with the organisation since 2007. She has a masters in English from the University of Karachi. Farieha was awarded the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008.


Among the blasphemers

The fugitive
“I changed my name once I got out of jail,” says Yakoob nonchalantly.
“Why did you do that?” I ask him.
“To live.”
It seemed so aptly put. At the age of 28, he was forced to become someone else — adopt a new name, find a new home, and start a new life. The reason? — he had been convicted for committing blasphemy. Ten years after getting out of jail, he already looked old and worn out. So much for a new life…

“I was in for 3 years, and I was kept in solitary confinement throughout,” Yakoob tells me. “I was kept separate from the rest of the inmates, but the prison guards tortured me and kept saying things which I knew weren’t true.”
“Like what?”
“Like, if I converted to Islam, they would try to get me a pardon.” He seems nervous saying this to me, perhaps because he knows I am a Muslim by faith.
“Why didn’t you convert then?” I ask.
“Sir, why should I? To each his own; my religion is as beloved to me as theirs is to them.”

Religious intolerance — that was the root cause of Yakoob’s misery. If religion is the opium of the masses, I was now beginning to find out why this particular narcotic was so lethal. In the wake of the much talked about case of Aasia Bibi, I had met Yakoob through the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a human rights organisation that provided legal and financial help to those accused of blasphemy. We had agreed to meet in a church in Lahore where Yakoob felt safe.

Yakoob was from Sialkot but the fear of ‘street justice’ prevented him from visiting his family in their hometown. In the late 90s a rival shop-owner accused Yakoob of pelting stones on religious hoardings during a rally organised by Christians. This happened in the wake of a bishop killing himself in protest against the blasphemy laws. But according to Yakoob, he didn’t even know about the rally, much less attend it. Of course, no one paid attention to his pleas and the court sentenced him to jail. He has now been living in Lahore for many years, afraid that he will be lynched by the people in his hometown, despite already having served his sentence.

A glass half empty
Yakoob may have got out of jail in 3 years but Aasia Bibi isn’t so lucky. On death row, her hanging is contingent only on approval from the Lahore High Court, which is still pending. A friend sent me the 15- page court verdict on Aasia. An interesting fact in the hearing was Aasia’s denial of ever having committed blasphemy, but the large number of witnesses against her made her case weak. Aasia’s lawyer also raised objections on grounds of the discrepancy between the time of the incident and the complaint, which was registered four days later, but the district court judge still ruled against Aasia.

Out of the 300 households of Ittanwala, a small village some two hours’ drive from Lahore close to the Indian border, the only Christian residents were Aasia Bibi and her family. Our guide, a local journalist, took us along a road that led to mud houses built close to each other. “That’s Aasia’s house,” he said, pointing to the first house. “Some family members are still living there.”

This was surprising because the media had reported that Aasia’s family was on the run.

Before meeting anyone, we had to see the Maulvi of the village. Qari Salaam’s house was the lassat in a narrow lane lined with concrete and mud houses, next to the mosque where he led prayers. A friendly man in his mid-thirties, he had a long black beard and wore a turban. Salaam was the one who had registered the case against Aasia after two village-girls had complained to him.

Salaam took us to the exact spot where Aasia and the girls had had an argument. From a dirt road, we were led to an orchard where a man named Idrees, was sitting on a charpoy. Idrees was one of the testifier in Aasia’s case. With Idrees, we made our way further into the orchard until we reached an open spot under a tree. “This is where it all started,” said Idrees.
“It was the summer of 2009,” he began. “I was out here when I heard Asia fighting with the two sisters. It was lunch time and they were having food. When I asked them what the problem was, Mafia told me that Aasia had just committed blasphemy and said things about our religion and our Prophet,” he added.
“Why would she do that?” I asked.
“Well, Aasia and the sisters had just eaten lunch, and Aasia took their glass and drank water out of it. The two sisters did not touch the glass after that. So Aasia inquired why they weren’t touching the glass. The sisters told her that it was because she is Christian and they would not drink out of her glass,” said Idrees.
“This infuriated Asia so much that she went on to say blasphemous things,” Qari Salaam added.
“Like what?” I asked.
“Those are words that we cannot repeat,” the two said in unison.

I wanted to meet the girls who had reported Aasia Bibi to Qari Salaam and the maulvi agreed to take us to their house. Of the two sisters, only Mafia was home when we arrived. Her younger siblings and nephews were playing around her. She kept her face covered during our meeting. Her story was a repeat of what we’d heard in the orchard.
When she had finished, I asked her why she wouldn’t drink out of a Christian’s glass.
“As Muslims we should not share it,” she said with conviction.
Then I asked her what she thought of the pardon for Aasia.
“Aasia deserves death. She should be killed soon,” she said furiously. “These delay tactics of our judicial system reflect inefficiency.”

Fear and loathing
Our next visit was to Aasia’s house which was on the same street as Mafia’s. Aasia’s sister-in-law, woman in her mid-thirties, opened the door and told me that she was living there to take care of Aasia’s sister who had had a baby recently. By that time a sizable crowd had gathered outside the house and as she opened the door to let us in, I could tell that she was scared. Inside the house, I met Aasia’s sister, Sonia* a malnourished woman holding a baby in her lap.

When asked her if she thought Aasia could say all that she had been accused of, she replied “I don’t know.”
Then she added, “This is not the first time Aasia or her family have been targeted in this village. They would block the family’s sewerage line, damage the house walls. She was uneducated, she didn’t know about her own religion. How could she come up with such specific facts about the Prophet (pbuh) and present them in a twisted, derogatory manner?” she asked.
“So you think she’s being targeted for her religion?” I asked.
Before she could say anything, a face popped up from the wall beside her. A man was listening to our conversation. Sonia froze, too scared to speak.
“Are you not scared to live here?” I asked her.
“We don’t have a choice. Someone has to live here to protect the house,” she said.

Ashiq, Aasia’s husband, was on the run, and Sonia told me to get in touch with him through Aasia’s lawyer.
But, when I contacted him, the lawyer was reluctant. “Ashiq is in danger,” he told me over the phone. “Salmaan Taseer’s assassination has changed everything,” he added. Finally, he agreed to arrange a meeting in a village just outside Lahore after midnight.

I met Ashiq in a house that was under construction. I was ushered to the first floor where cement and sawdust were strewn on the floor. There sat Aasia’s three children, with their aunt. Their faces were unwashed, their clothes were tattered and uncertainty lingered in their eyes… I wondered how long it would be before they could stop running.

Ashiq told me that he met his wife once a week but the children never went along with him since it was too dangerous. He had lost his job a while ago and only his son was working now. He had a job in some other village, but it was likely that he would lose it soon. The family was barely able to survive.

I asked him why he was on the run but, before he could reply, one of children piped up.
“They were going to kill her that day. She was thrashed for hours. Do you think we could stay there? They beat her almost to death.” The anger in this child’s voice broke my heart. She was barely 12 and that had been the last that she’d seen of her mother.
“So do you think you will ever see your mother again?” I asked her.
“I trust God — He will bring her back to us,” she replied.

The road to Gojra
Analysts say that because of the circumstances surrounding Governor Salmaan Taseer’s assassination, Aasia has little or no chance of getting her sentence reverted. Following Taseer’s murder, the government announced that it would withdraw the proposed amendments’ bill in the blasphemy law which had been submitted to parliament by Sherry Rehman. With this, any hope of change has died out.

The blasphemy law was amended under General Zia-ul-Haq — a dictator who we all agree brought ‘the Kalashnikov culture’, heroin smuggling, and ethnic tension to this country. Pakistan is one of only two countries in the world that award capital punishment for blasphemy; the other is Saudi Arabia. Other Muslim states do not award death sentences for blasphemy. In that case do Pakistan’s laws really uphold the ideals that the country was built upon? Another round of investigations answered my questions.

In 2009, seven Christians were burnt alive by a mob in Gojra and recently, the Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah claimed the issue had been settled. But NCJP, which had been handling this case, took issue with the minister’s claim. So I decided to see for myself.

The next day I was on my way to Gojra, an hour’s drive from Faisalabad. We had arranged to meet the local priest, Father Younus, in a church. As we sat down for tea, I noticed a nearby wall had ‘The Gojra Tragedy’ written on it. On closer inspection, I saw it was covered with photographs of women crying, injured men and a street with burnt houses… Father Younus introduced us to Haroon, whose mother and sister had been amongst those that died when Christian houses in Gojra were set on fire. Haroon took us to the street where it had all happened.

We reached a noisy street with freshly-painted houses on each side. Kids played in the street and women chatted with each other in corners. A big signboard lauded the government of Punjab’s reconstruction efforts. At the end of the street was a house which the government of Punjab had obviously not reconstructed: its walls were scorched and the dilapidated door had a big padlock on it.

“This is the house where seven people including my sister and mother were burnt alive,” Haroon said. “It all started with the sermons in the mosque that day. We could hear them over the loudspeakers: ‘Kill the Christians!’ And even though we were forewarned, what could a few Christians do against a mob of hundreds of people who wanted to kill them?” Haroon had fear in his eyes as he narrated the events of that dark day. He went on to tell us how, following the announcement, mobs of teenagers descended on their street, beating people, throwing petrol bombs into homes, and opening fire at those who were fleeing.
“Why wasn’t this house reconstructed?” I asked him.
“Because the son of the man killed in this incident has not withdrawn the case yet,” he said. Apparently, the Punjab government has rebuilt only those houses whose owners have withdrawn charges against members of the mob. And all have done so, except for the owner of this house where seven human beings had been burnt alive.

So that’s what the Punjab Law minister had meant when he said the issue had been settled.

Haroon took us to the Muslim preachers of the area. “That’s the mosque,” he said. “The mullah there is from Sipah-e-Sahaba.” According to reports from the interior ministry, Sipah-e-Sahaba, a banned organisation, was behind the Gojra attacks. I waited for Maulana Kashmiri to finish Friday prayers so that I could talk to him. His sermon that day is something that I cannot forget even today. He was screaming through a microphone and claiming that he was quoting most of it from the Quran. The crowd was mesmerised. “The infidels will lead you astray. They do everything for money — a worldly pleasure that will not last,” he shouted.

While waiting for him to get done with the prayers, I met some teenagers outside the mosque. One of them pointed to the mosque and said, “Maulana Kashmiri is not affiliated with Sipah-e-Sahaba anymore but he was with them. He left it after coming back from jail.”

When I joined Maulana Kashmiri at his home, I asked him whether he was a member of Sipah-e-Sahaba.tase.
“No, I don’t belong to any religious organisation. I am just an imam of this mosque,” he replied. He told me that he had been in jail for fourteen months after the Gojra incident and had gotten out a few months ago. But his fourteen month detention was illegal, he claimed.
He flatly denied having made anti-Christian statements in his sermons. “I have made no such announcements. Nothing of the sort happened that day,” he said, referring to the day of the Gojra tragedy. “Actually some Muslim youth were attacked and injured by Christians. That led to the ‘riots’. You should check the hospital record which shows that Muslims were brought to the emergency room before the time quoted on the FIR registered by the Christians.”
He went on to defend himself and I realised that Maulana Kashmiri was not going to change his version of events. “It was just that people were angry because of the blasphemy committed by a Christian family in Korian, following which Christians tried to attack and ridicule Muslim youth in Gojra. This is what caused the riots.”
“So now you’re out and free?” I asked him.
“Not really, I still have to go to the hearing in the court,” he replied.

No Witnesses, no case
A few days later, I was at Maulana Kashmiri’s hearing at the Anti Terrorist court in Faisalabad. I found out that none of the victims would be present at the hearing, because all had withdrawn their cases except Almas Hameed. Almost all of Hameed’s family including his wife, son, daughter, sister-in-law, mother, aunt and father had died that day. Hameed himself had left the country for Thailand a few months ago, owing to security concerns. Now it was just the state and one Christian that pursued the case.

A few minutes after 9.00 am, a bus stopped in front of the gate and a group of around 50 people got off.
“Who are these people?” I asked the man leading the group.
“They are the nominated accused in the FIR of the Gojra incident,” he said.
The man I had spoken to was Rehmatullah, who belonged to the Jamaat-e-Islami and was providing legal support to these villagers.

When Rehmatullah came out of court he said, “The court has deferred the hearing for the next week due to a lack of witness accounts and has asked the state to present the witnesses next time.”
“We are innocent!” cried one of the men standing next to Rehmatullah. Maulana Kashmiri, who had also come out, nodded in agreement. “There are no witnesses because they know they are wrong,” he said. “We will get justice.”
“Do you know what happened at Gojra and Korian?” I asked him.
“Yes, I do, and even though none of us did it, the Christians still deserved it. They are blasphemers!” he shouted angrily. And a chorus of people echoed his words.

Among the believers
So whether it was the villagers, the educated masses or the politicians — the stance against blasphemy was the same.

I saw all these people come together under one umbrella the following week at a rally in Lahore organised by Islamist parties in support of the blasphemy law. The Jamaat-e-Islami representative Rehmatullah, who I had met outside the ATC in Faisalabad, was at the rally which was to begin from Nasir Bagh on Kachehri Road near the District courts and stop at the Punjab Assembly prominent leaders from the JUI-F, JI and JuD would address the crowd.

Islamist organisations were one of the biggest pressure groups in support of the blasphemy law and I could see how they managed their support. They backed these accused villagers and in return they got the street power they needed to shake the pillars of power. It was a win-win situation.

Rehmat-ullah got out of a bus in which he had brought a crowd of more than 150 people who were now marching towards the Kachehri Road.

The government had set up a loose security barrier that many were bypassing as we followed the group. The crowd was becoming larger and louder, shouting anti-government slogans, holding placards and party flags (including that of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba’s). The rally was astonishing — there were people that carried posters of Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of Salmaan Taseer with statements like ‘He is our hero’, and ‘Free Qadri’. Some people had placards with ‘Hang Aasia Bibi’ written on them. On Mall Road, a truck was painted with a photo-shopped full-size poster of Qadri sitting on a throne. His handcuffs had been digitally removed from the picture and two dead dogs lay in a puddle of blood at his feet. Two other dogs stood by, with Pope Benedict’s face photoshopped on their bodies. People were kissing Qadri’s feet while spitting on the dogs. A group of people carried effigies dressed as witches with the names of who they represented written on a placard. A man pointed at the effigies and shouted, ‘Meet Sherry Rehman and Fauzia Wahab.’

Sherry Rehman’s name had been changed to Sherry Satan. “She wants to bring a change in the blasphemy law. We will not let her,” shouted the man carrying her effigy. “She will end up like Salmaan Taseer!”

I had thought that the Islamists in Pakistan were politically motivated to pressurise the government and that the rally would be their show alone– but I had been wrong, mainstream political parties were at the rally as well. Outside the Punjab assembly, the rally was being addressed by the PML-N’s Khawaja Saad Rafiq and the ex-chief minister Punjab Chauhdry Pervez Elahi from the PML-Q. The Pakistan Tehreek-I-Insaaf had also sent its representative.

I asked Khawaja Saad Rafique if it was wise to mix politics and religion. “This is not politics; it is our duty as Muslims to defend Islam,” replied the parliamentarian before leaving in a convoy of jeeps.
“Islam will prevail no matter what,” screamed the loudspeakers around me as another political activist started to speak.
“Will it?” I thought to myself. And if so, which brand of Islam? With the hatred and bigotry I have witnessed in the past few weeks, I wondered what happened to the Islam of my childhood, the religion of peace, harmony and tolerance? How many more Taseers, Bhattis and Aasias will pay the price for our inability to tolerate the opinions and faiths of others?

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 13th, 2011.

NB: This e-mail is forwarded by Friends of National Students’ Federation (NSF); striving for a secular Pakistan. Friends of National Students’ Federation (NSF) is an electronic forum to disseminate information from dialectical perspective. This e-forum may or may not agree with the contents of a particular writing, but circulate it for alternative view points and healthy debate

The Friends of National Students Federation is defending the rights of progressives/liberals/secularists/non-believers/minority groups from the demands of religious power-seekers. The FNSF vows to combat the influence of religion on governments. We want to ensure that Human Rights always come before religious rights, and we fight the massive exemptions religious bodies demand – and are sometimes granted – from discrimination laws that everyone else is subject to. Every privilege has its victims.

We campaign for a society where everyone is free to practise their faith, change it or not have one. Belief or lack of it should not be an advantage or a disadvantage. Religion should be a private matter, for the home and place of worship; it must not have privileged influence in the public and political arenas where it can too easily become an excuse for conflict, inequality and injustice.

We fight to protect free expression from attacks by religious groups who often want to restrict or prevent any examination of their activities and the results of their beliefs. We are working to protect artistic expression from religious censors.

We believe that only by secularising our institutions can we ensure that no religious ideology can dominate and discriminate against others and that progressives/liberals/secularists/non-believers/minority groups are given equal treatment.

(This write-up owes a lot to National Secular Society of England)

From CMKP Newsletter

Repeal the Blasphemy Laws! Candlelight Vigil, Vancouver March 15/11

Protect Human Rights of Minorities in Pakistan!
Repeal the Blasphemy Laws!
Candlelight Vigil to Commemorate the Lives of all Victims of Blasphemy Laws
March 15th, 6pm
Outside the Pakistani Consulate, 510 W. Hastings Street

(corner of W. Hastings and Richards, across from SFU Harbour Centre)

As you may know, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti was recently assassinated for speaking out against the Blasphemy Laws and the resulting ongoing persecution of religious minorities. This was preceded by the assassination of the Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer who had taken up the cause of Aasia Bibi, a poor Christian labourer who is currently imprisoned awaiting death by hanging under the Blasphemy Laws. Countless other Pakistanis continue to be persecuted because of these heinous legal relics of the Zia dictatorship in conjunction with a dangerous and unconscionable appropriation of Islam, deliberately distorted for the sole purpose of political or economic gain.

We believe that it is the Blasphemy Laws themselves and the resulting persecution and violence that are un-Islamic and contrary to both the tenets of Islam and the founding principles of the nation. We stand in solidarity with the struggles taking place in Pakistan to ensure equality for ALL Pakistanis and feel that we must speak out strongly where other voices are being threatened into silence through harassment and direct death calls.

Through this vigil, we want to begin building alliances with sister organizations and supportive individuals for effective lobbying to put pressure on the Government of Pakistan, the Chief of the Army Staff, and the leaders of all political parties to repeal the Blasphemy Laws, and to abolish religious extremism and vigilantism. We believe, the Blasphemy Laws must be repealed in order to protect Muslim and non-Muslim lives, minority rights, freedom of speech and democracy.

Please stand with us. This issue requires your urgent support.

Protect Human Rights of Minorities in Pakistan!
Repeal the Blasphemy Laws!
Candlelight Vigil to Commemorate the Lives of all Victims of Blasphemy Laws
March 15th, 6pm
Outside the Pakistani Consulate, 510 W. Hastings Street

(corner of W. Hastings and Richards, across from SFU Harbour Centre)

Please join us in a candlelight vigil to
– Protest the persecution of all minorities within Pakistan
– Push for the repeal
of the blasphemy laws and all laws that discriminate against all minorities
– Honour all lives
lost to extremist violence including the recent assassinations of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti
– Support the release
of Aasia Bibi and all those now being victimized by discriminatory laws

For more info
Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=150985018294095

Organized by
Ad Hoc Group For the Repeal of Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan
Vancouver, BC

SILENCE MEANS MORE BLOOD! Join CFD, Karachi, March 12/11

Raise your voice against

religious extremism

Please join the letter campaign to the President, the PM and the Chief Justice of Pakistan organized by the Citizens for Democracy on Saturday, 12th March, from 11am to 7pm opposite Park Towers, Karachi. If possible, bring some postage stamps. Even better, bring as many friends as you can.




Citizens For Democracy (CFD) is an umbrella group of over 75 organizations including professional groups, NGOs, trade unions, student unions, political parties and concerned individuals united against the turn towards extremism in our society. CFD calls upon all professional groups, NGOs, trade unions, student unions, and individuals to join hands in its peaceful campaigns.



Assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti Shaheed: Press Release by Pakistani Canadians

“30,000 Christians and others came to the funeral of Shahbaz Bhatti. About the same number as the Namoos Risalat rally in Khi (ie all religious parties put together). If we stand shoulder to shoulder in this hour of trial and tribulations, together we can turn the tide of religious extremism” – Taimur Rehman, CFD Lahore
Also view these statements by Asian Human rights Commission:
http://www.ahrchk.net/ and,
Last day to endorse this letter by Citizens For Democracy (CFD):

Press Release by Committee of Progressive Pakistani Canadians
It is with great shock and sadness that the Committee of Progressive Pakistani Canadians (CPPC) heard the news of the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the prominent Christian leader and Minister of Minority Affairs in Islamabad by Islamist extremists organized into terrorist groups. We offer our deepest condolences to the family members of Shahbaz Bhatti and of all those who have lost their lives in such similar acts.

The Committee of Progressive Pakistani-Canadians strongly condemns the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti and deplores the failure of various governments of Pakistan, including the present one, to bring an end to the blatant abuses of the Blasphemy Law formulated during the reign of military dictator Zia-ul Haque – whose regime, we might add, was supported by the U.S. and other Western powers.

Shahbaz Bhatti’s assassination for openly criticizing the Blasphemy Law and its rampant misuse against Pakistan’s minority communities comes on the heels of the murder of Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, for taking a similar stand. We feel that instead of taking strong measures against such killings, the authorities have capitulated to those who openly incite murder and violence against political dissent. The Prime Minister’s repeated assurances that his government has no intention of repealing the Blasphemy Law amounts to nothing except abject surrender to organized violence – especially that of religious fundamentalist forces – as a tool of political repression in Pakistan.

It is worth noting that acts of terrorism by fundamentalist elements and/or those linked to security agencies of the state against Christians and churches in Egypt were carried out to both sow disunity amongst the masses and to divert their attention from the real issues facing them. Scenes of Christians and Muslims jointly holding the cross and the Quran in their common protests to replace dictatorial rule and unjust social conditions was, on the one hand, a firm rejection by the Egyptian people of such schemes and, on the other, an inspiration to all of us who believe that inter-religious unity – even in religious societies – is not only desirable but possible.

We believe that bloody violence and political instability will continue to plague Pakistan so long as religion has a place in the affairs of the state. Equality of all citizens, regardless of their beliefs is a core value of any democratic society. The CPPC supports this principle – and a secular society – here in Canada as well as in Pakistan. We join all those Canadians – with origins in Pakistan or otherwise – who have condemned the killings of Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer and encourage them to openly and publicly register their disapproval of these dastardly acts.

Committee of Progressive Pakistani-Canadians
Vancouver Chapter
March 5, 2011

‘Bhatti’s assassination: a sign of a deep malaise’ by Farhat Taj

Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Gilani, was shot dead in broad daylight in the federal capital. Bhatti, the minister for minorities, had been receiving frequent death threats from terrorists. This is the second high-profile killing in two months, following the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who was gunned down by a religious fanatic hailed as a hero by religious groups and even lawyers. Both leaders had been vocally opposing Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws and publicly supporting the release of Aasia Bibi, a poor Christian woman implicated in a dubious blasphemy case. Both had been publicly highlighting legal flaws in the blasphemy laws.

The aftermath of the killing shows nothing to indicate that Pakistanis in key power positions are even acknowledging the deep malaise the country is suffering from: religious extremism nurtured for foreign and domestic policy objectives. All signs show that religious bigotry will continue to be used for state objectives by the military and the political class will continue to succumb to the lethal military-militant alliance.

Reportedly, the Punjabi Taliban took responsibility for Bhatti’s assassination. The PML-N’s Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, expressed his displeasure over the term ‘Punjabi Taliban’ in the media. During a talk with newsmen he was reluctant to declare the Taliban as terrorists. Some people in FATA call the PML-N the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) of Punjab. This is because the party’s position on the Taliban is vague and tacitly pro-Taliban. Recall, some time back the chief minister even asked the Taliban to spare Punjab from attacks because the Taliban and the PML-N’s objectives converge. It looks like the largest province of Pakistan will have to bleed much more with Taliban atrocities before the PML-N wakes up to the reality. Religious extremism, it seems, has permeated a large section of the Punjabi middle class. This is a very bad sign for the religious as well as ethnic minorities of Pakistan. Religious minorities, especially in Punjab, are routinely attacked and people in FATA, especially Waziristan, inform that their land is occupied by the Punjabi Taliban — many of them ISI operatives — who physically control the minority of Pakhtun terrorists and foreign al Qaeda militants.

The PPP is increasingly caving in to the terrorists. It has abandoned people within its own ranks for taking a principled stance against the forces of religious fanaticism. Late Salmaan Taseer gave his life for supporting a poor Christian woman entrapped in a dubious blasphemy case. The PPP, which is supposed to be a supporter of the minorities’ rights, extended him no support. He was left vulnerable to attacks by religious fanatics, who took his life. Another PPP member, Sherry Rehman, who was prepared to table a bill to amend the country’s blasphemy laws in the National Assembly, has been silenced and made to give up the plan by the party. Fatwas (edicts) had been issued against Shahbaz Bhatti, another PPP stalwart and minister, calling for his assassination. The government showed no signs of standing by the minister for fear of losing power under pressure from the right-wing lobby. His request for a bulletproof car was also not entertained by the government. The result is in front of us — he was gunned down. Perhaps next would be the turn of Sherry Rehman. There is no sign the government would publicly stand by her.

The religious parties are silent over the assassination of Bhatti and thus tacitly approving it. The top tier leadership of the right-wing political parties remains quiet, or guarded in its response. Their spokesmen engage in the usual rhetoric.

The assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti is a sign of the deep malaise afflicting Pakistan. The overwhelming intelligence agencies of Pakistan have long used religious bigotry as a tool to bleed Pakhtun nationalism in Afghanistan, the Indian state in Kashmir, and assault secular and nationalist forces inside Pakistan. The military-militant alliance remains intact. It has even put the responsibility of Bhatti’s assassination on the US. Pro-establishment rhetorician, Zaid Hamid, has said in a TV talk show that the handlers of Bhatti’s assassins are US spy operatives in Pakistan. I am afraid some time down the road Sherry Rehman would be killed by the bloodthirsty alliance and the blame will be put on US ‘spies’ to fuel anti-Americanism in Pakistan. Assassinations of secular minded people is fetching double benefit for the military-militant alliance: one, it purges Pakistan of secular ‘infidels’ that, by implication, creates more political space for the religious forces, and two, it stokes the fire of anti-Americanism in Pakistan when they blame US spies for such assassinations.

Nothing short of a people’s revolution against the military-militant alliance can save Pakistan. But there is no one to lead such a revolution. Pakistan, as elaborated in a book, Armageddon in Pakistan, is a feudal state. Its power structure is held by a feudal army, feudal democracy, feudal judiciary and feudal media. The army dominates the feudal system and the other three are its beneficiaries as junior partners. Why should the other three break down the system that benefits them? The former three will never come out to speak for the people, especially the ethnic and religious minorities, devastated by the military-militant alliance. There is no place in Pakistan for people who can take a principled stance on the rights of the people oppressed by this deadly alliance. The likes of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti will continue to be eliminated. Let us see who is the next to be assassinated.

From SPN Newsletter

Endorse This Letter: Murder of Shahbaz Bhatti Shaheed

Open letter to The President, Prime Minister, Interior Minister, Chief Justice, and heads of all political parties, Pakistan

March 4, 2011
by Citizens for Democracy

Please see below Open letter to The President, Prime Minister, Interior Minister, Chief Justice, and heads of all political parties, Pakistan, re: murder of Shahbaz Bhatti and demand for action against calls for violence and vigilante action.
Deadline for endorsements (including name, profession, city): Monday March 7, midnight Pakistan time, after which we will compile signatures and send to the recipients and to media. Endorsements can be made here, or via email to cfd.pak@gmail.com. Please share with friends. If anyone wants to translate it and circulate, please feel free. Thanks

Open letter to The President, Prime Minister, Interior Minister, Chief Justice, and heads of all political parties, Pakistan

Re: Murder of Shahbaz Bhatti and demand for action against calls for violence and vigilante action

The murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minority Affairs, again highlights the rampant lawlessness in Pakistan and the impunity with which the “forces of violence” act against “whoever stands against their radical philosophy,” to quote the late Mr Bhatti. These “forces” find fertile ground to operate in an atmosphere where calls to vigilante action are publically made and celebrated.

We urge the government and its functionaries to swiftly apprehend, charge, try and punish Mr Bhatti’s murderers, and also to take immediate measures to curb this trend.

We urge all political parties and parliamentarians to take a clear stand on this issue: No citizen has the right to cast aspersions at the faith and beliefs of any other citizen or to term someone else a ‘blasphemer’.

We urge the federal and provincial governments, the judiciary and the security and law enforcement agencies to ensure protection for those, like former information minister Sherry Rehman, who are publicly threatened by extremists

Some immediate steps that must immediately be taken include:

1. An urgent and meaningful shift in the long-standing policy of appeasing extremists, by the security establishment, the judiciary, the political class and much of the media, with a few honourable exceptions.

2. Hold accountable and charge under the law those who incite hatred and violence; zero tolerance for any public labeling of anyone as ‘blasphemer’, which in the current situation is an incitement to murder, even brazen declaration of criminal intent and commission of a crime. Some recent examples of such incitement are:
– Maulana Yousuf Qureshi, Imam of the Mohabbat Khan Mosque, Peshawar, announced a Rs 500,000 award for the murder of Asia Bibi if the Lahore High Court acquitted her of blasphemy (reported on December 3, 2010, a month prior to the murder of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer; some newspaperseven wrote editorials supporting this call for murder.)
– Banners placed at public places in Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi-Islamabad by “Tehreek-e-Nifaz-Tableegh-e-Islam” terming Tehmina Durrani as Pakistan’s Taslima Nasreen and demanding that she be hanged. These must be removed forthwith and the organisation, and administrative officers who allowed these banners to be placed, proceeded against.

3. Prevent the rising number of ‘blasphemy’ cases being registered, by laying down and enforcing a law whereby no such cases may be registered without being inquired into by a judicial magistrate.

Please include your name,
profession, and city

Organisational endorsements from CFD supporting organisations include:
Professional Organisations Mazdoor Federations & Hari Joint Committee – POJAC, an umbrella organisation including: 1. Sindh High Court Bar Association; 2. Pakistan Medical Association (PMA); 3. All Pakistan Newspaper Employees Confederation (APNEC); 4. Mutahida Labour Federation; 5. Karachi Union of Journalists; 6. Pakistan Workers Federation; 7. All Pakistan Trade Union Federation (APTUF); 8. All Pakistan Clerk Association; 9. Democratic Labour Union State Bank of Pakistan; 10. UBL Workmen Union (CBA); 11. National Bank Trade Union Federation; 12. Karachi Bar Association; 13. Pakistan Nursing Federation; 14. National Trade Union Federation; 15. Sindh Hari Committee; 16. Govt. Sec. Teachers Association; 17. Pakistan Hotel And Restaurant Workers Federation; 18. Mehran Mazdoor Federation; 19. All Sindh Primary Teachers Association; 20. Sindh Professor Lecturer Association; 21. Malir Bar Association, Karachi; 22. Pakistan Trade Union Federation (PTUF); 23. Railway Workers Union Open Line (cba) Workshop; 24. Mehran Railway Employees Welfare Association; 25. All Pakistan Trade Unions Organisations; CFD members and those endorsing the above statement also include: 26. Awami Party; 27. Labour Party Pakistan (LPP); 28. Progressive Youth Front (PYF); 29. Communist Party Pakistan (CPP); 30. Peace and Solidarity Council; 31. Pakistan Institute of Labour, Education & Research (Piler); 32. Action Committee for Human Rights; 33. Dalit Front; 34. National NCommission for Justice and Peace (CJP); 35. Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP); 36. Caritas; 37. Aurat Foundation; 38. Women’s Action Forum (WAF); 39. People’s Resistance; 40. Sindh Awami Sangat; 41. National Organisation of Working Committees; 42. Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF); 43. Child and Labour Rights Welfare Organisation; 44. Progressive Writers Association (PWA); 45. Port Workers Federation; 46. Shirkat Gah; 47. Pakistan Peace Coalition (PPC); 48. Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA); 49. Sanjan Nagar Public Education Trust  (SNPET);  50. Pakistan Dalit Solidarity Network (PDSN); 51. Sindh Democratic Forum (SDF); 52. SAP-Pakistan; 53. AwazCDS-Pakistan; 54. GCAP-Pakistan; 55. Home Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF); 56. Labour Education Foundation (LEF); 57. Progressive Youth Forum; 58. National Students’ Federation (NSF); 59. The Researchers; 60. Tehrik-e-Niswan; 61. Democratic Commission for Human Development (DCHD); 62. Crises Support Group of Residents for Defence and Clifton, Karachi; 63. Baaghi: A blog for secular Pakistan; 64. Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party (CMKP); 65. Ansar Burney Trust International; 66. Viewpoint International; 67. Pakistan Youth Alliance; 68. Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI); 69. Youth Together for Human Rights Education (YTHRE); 70. The Institute for Social Movements (ISM); 71 South Asia Partnership Pakistan (SAP-Pk); 72. Institute for Development Initiatives; 73. Shehri-CBE; 74. Institute for Peace and Secular studies; 75. Youth Parliament of Pakistan; 76. Pattan; 77. Awami Jamhoori Forum; 78. Community Development Initiative (CDI)

From Citizens For Democracy