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On Behalf of EU High Representative/Vice-President Catherine Ashton
Death Penalty in Pakistan and the case of Asia Bibi
Strasbourg, 22 October 2014
Honourable Members of the European Parliament,
Since Pakistan's transition to democracy in 2008, the EU has stepped up its engagement with Pakistan. In 2012, a 5-year engagement plan was adopted which broadened and deepened our political dialogue. In that framework, we hold discussions on a broad range of issues, including governance and human rights. The granting of GSP+ to Pakistan as from 1 January this year offers a complementary opportunity for in-depth discussion and assessment of progress on human rights.
Since 2008, Pakistan upholds a death penalty moratorium by civilian courts. We regularly remind Pakistan of EU's principled stance against the death penalty and of our conviction that the death penalty is a cruel and inhumane punishment. The EU Delegation is vigilant and has called on Pakistan to maintain the moratorium on the death penalty. Pakistan confirmed at the Strategic dialogue in March 2014 that they would maintain the moratorium.
The blasphemy laws are the most prominent tool of oppression of religious minorities. They date back to British colonial times, but were amended in the 1980s when it was stipulated that any insult to the Holy Quran is punishable by life imprisonment and that the use of derogatory remarks against the Holy Prophet is punishable by death.
A number of death sentences have been passed for blasphemy, in particular by the lower courts, but so far no death sentence has been carried out. Usually defendants are acquitted or released on bail by the higher courts, but they may spend several years in jail waiting for their appeal.
The most fundamental criticism levelled against the laws is that the punishment (death penalty) is disproportionate to the nature of the crime. However, another major concern is that a considerable number of the blasphemy cases are based on false claims. Cases are filed against Muslims, in the majority of cases, as well as non-Muslims as a way to settle personal scores, or to stoke up sectarian and inter-faith tensions. Such misuse seems to have risen sharply in the last decades. In the Universal Period Review, Pakistan acknowledged that there were abuses of these laws and made a commitment to work towards preventing such abuse.
As pointed out in the Guidelines on Freedom of Religion and Belief, adopted by the Foreign Affairs Council on 23 June 2013, "laws that criminalize blasphemy restrict expression concerning religious or other beliefs […]can have a serious inhibiting effect on freedom of expression and on freedom of religion or belief; [the EU] recommends the decriminalisation of such offences". Furthermore, the EU "forcefully advocate against the use of the death penalty, physical punishment, or deprivation of liberty as penalties for blasphemy".
In the case of Asia Bibi, the EU has followed developments closely. Thursday last week the Lahore High Court heard her appeal and decided to uphold the verdict by a lower court from 2010 condemning her to death for blasphemy. She now has 30 days in which to appeal her case to the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
On 18 October, the HRVP Spokesperson issued the following statement: "We are saddened and deeply concerned by the decision of the High Court of Lahore to uphold the conviction of Ms Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death for Blasphemy by a lower court in 2010. The EU considers the death penalty a cruel and inhumane punishment. We hope that the verdict will be appealed to the Supreme Court and struck down swiftly. We call on Pakistan to ensure for all its citizens full respect of human rights as guaranteed by international conventions to which it is party."
Asia Bibi is the first woman to be condemned to death for the crime of blasphemy and she has touched the hearts of many here in Europe. Despite this, her case is one of many tragic cases. We welcome the strong engagement and interest by the EP in the human rights situation in Pakistan, as expressed through numerous resolutions, parliamentary questions and letters.
The EU, and notably its Delegation in Islamabad, will continue to follow the case closely. We will continue the advocate for the verdict to be overturned and for Ms Bibi to be released. While not trying to intervene in an ongoing court case, we will use any opportunity to raise this case, and the wider issues of the death penalty and blasphemy law, with our Pakistani counterparts. We will continue to urge the Government of Pakistan to consider reducing the number of crimes that carry the death penalty and to uphold its obligations with regard to freedom of speech and freedom of religion and belief. These issues were raised in June in the Human Rights dialogue in Islamabad. The next opportunity will be already next week, when EUSR Lambrinidis will visit Pakistan.
Finally, as I have already mentioned, the GSP+ regime offers a very useful framework for assessing and promoting progress on human rights issues in Pakistan.
I have taken note of and welcome your strong interest in the specific case, and in the broader issues, discussed today. Let me assure you, that the EU remains fully committed to engage with Pakistan –with the Government, human rights defenders and other stakeholders – to promote and defend human rights in Pakistan.
To this end, we will make full use of the various instruments at our disposal – statements, demarches, dialogue – to make our voice heard, but also to listen and understand some of the obstacles to swift change, so as to address them more effectively.
We welcome your engagement and hope that further dialogue between the EP and parliamentarians in Pakistan will also be beneficial in promoting change. In this respect, the forthcoming visit by the Chair of the Pakistani Senate to Europe at the end of November may be a useful opportunity to discuss our concerns.
We look forward to continuing our close cooperation with you on promoting human rights for all citizens in Pakistan, regardless of gender, faith or age.