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EU Envoy’s threat of trade sanctions played crucial role in Asia Bibi’s freedom

EU Envoy on religious freedom, Jan Figel, meets with Asia Bibi’s lawyer Saif ul Malook in Lahore, December 2017. (Photo: Jan Figel)

World Watch Monitor—Freed Pakistani Christian Aasiya Noreen, known to the world now as Asia Bibi, has pleaded for the many others like her accused of blasphemy who, she says, are still “lying in jail for years – their decisions should also be done on merit. The world should listen to them.

“The way any person is alleged (to have committed) blasphemy without any proper investigation, without any proper proof, that should be noticed. This blasphemy law should be reviewed and there should be proper investigation mechanisms while applying this law. We should not consider anyone sinful for this act without any proof.”

She made this appeal from her refuge in Canada through a series of answers she provided to the UK’s Sunday Telegraph.

Shortly afterward, the European Post released a video that it says was provided by Noreen, in which she speaks in her native Urdu about her faith and urges fair treatment for anyone accused of a crime.

It’s hard to get a specific tally of the numbers known to be imprisoned, either awaiting trial -sometimes for years – for blasphemy, or already convicted. Many are Muslims. One figure World Watch Monitor saw quoted but could not get confirmed, after Asia Bibi was finally freed in May, was that Christians make up 17 of the 40 current ‘blasphemy’ prisoners. Christians form around 2% of Pakistan’s total population according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, its Co-Director Gina Zurlo told World Watch Monitor.

One couple who hit the spotlight immediately after Asia Bibi’s acquittal was Shafqat Emmanuel and his wife, Shaguftah, of Gojra, Punjab, both accused of sending blasphemous text messages. Shafqat has to use a wheelchair and has a catheter, after his backbone was fractured in an accident in 2004. Shaguftah was the main breadwinner for their four children.

Lawyer Saif ul-Malook, who – at the risk of his own life – defended Asia Bibi and successfully argued her appeal in Pakistan’s Supreme court, then promptly left Pakistan for the Netherlands (he was reported to have said that he was forced to flee) but said that he would return if her successful appeal was challenged. At the same time, he said he would now take up Shafqat and Shagfuftah’s case.

‘Justice and dignity for all Pakistanis’

The Sunday Telegraph article also referred to the crucial role for Asia Bibi’s freedom played by the EU Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), Jan Figel, from Slovakia, who’s worked tirelessly on her case, as well as for prisoners in Sudan and other countries.

He told World Watch Monitor that he had tried to visit Pakistan in his new role ‘from the start’ but that it had taken a year until a Pakistani high-level delegation (Minister of Trade and Attorney General) had visited his Brussels office. They invited him to Pakistan.

(In May 2018 Pakistan’s then-Minister for Interior, Ahsan Iqbal, who is known to support minority groups, survived an assassination after meeting with a group of Christians. Seven years earlier both the then-Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, and the Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti were targeted and killed for defending Asia Bibi). That particular Islamist network has many members outside Pakistan.

Following her acquittal Asia Bibi was detained for another seven months. Mr. Figel told the Sunday Telegraph “I think Imran Khan’s government and Pakistan’s military used this delay to get the situation in the country under real control.”

In December Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau publicly announced willingness to offer asylum at the Peace Centennial of World War I.

In January, in Pakistan’s capital, the “Islamabad Declaration” signed by over 500 Muslim clerics, publicly condemned terrorism, violence committed in the name of religion and fatwas (sacred edicts) widespread by radical Islamic leaders. Fides reported that “observers said it represents a turning point especially in the attitude towards religious minorities and sects such as Ahmadi Muslims. In fact, Fides wrote, ‘the Declaration recognizes that Pakistan is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, and notes that “it is the responsibility of the government to ensure the protection of the life of non-Muslim citizens in Pakistan”’.

In February, Pakistan’s Attorney-General again visited Brussels where he again met Jan Figel; the latter tweeted that he raised the fact that Asia Bibi, now freed by the Supreme Court, was still detained in effective ‘house arrest’.

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Pakistan’s Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari also visited Brussels. Figel liaised with Asia Bibi herself via Muhammad Amanullah, a human rights activist.

The EU Envoy confirmed directly to World Watch Monitor that the UK was not on the list of possible countries for her asylum, but that ‘there were a lot of rumours and problems around this’.

Asia Bibi was announced to have finally left Pakistan on 8 May, although it was not clear for a few days whether she had in fact joined her daughters who were already in exile in Canada.

Figel told WWM “Canada deserves international acknowledgement for its spirit of solidarity and real hospitality, also for the professionalism of its diplomacy and its immigration services. Security conditions are crucially important for Asia Bibi and her family”.

On June 25, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, signed the Fourth EU-Pakistan Strategic Engagement Plan (SEP) with the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini in Brussels.

Amongst points relevant to Asia Bibi’s plight were to “Develop mutually agreed co-operation on the implementation of the UN Security Council on Women, Peace and Security”, and (under ‘Democracy, Rule of Law, Good governance, and Human Rights’) the plan mentioned “Working together to ensure…protection of human rights at national and international levels” and “Enhancing…inter-faith dialogue and understanding to promote tolerance and harmony”.

EU Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief – role

Jan Figel, a former EU education and culture commissioner, was appointed in May 2016 when the post was created by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Twice extended for an additional year, Figel’s current mandate ends next month.

A report by Polish MEP Andrzej Grzyb, accepted by the European Parliament, but yet to be formally implemented, argued that Figel had “developed effective working networks” within the EU institutions and praised him for “continuous engagement and co-operation and complementarity of actions with the EU Special Representative for Human Rights”.

It also recommended that the Special Envoy’s role needs to be substantially reinforced, and that his new remit should include extending his term to match that of Commission’s five-year term, and “consolidated with sufficient human and financial resources”.

Figel does not currently have a budget and formal status in the EU institutions, beyond serving as a special advisor to the EU’s Development Commissioner. His staffing budget covers minimal assistance, less than the German government’s Commissioner for Global Freedom of Religion.

Campaigners also argue that freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is not given the importance it deserves in the EU institutions.

The MEPs’ report also recommends the setting up of a “regular advisory working group of member states’ FoRB institutions and European Parliament representatives, together with experts, scholars, and representatives of civil society, including churches and other faith-based organisations”.

After the US, Canada was among the first countries to appoint a Special Envoy who could focus on the issue of Freedom of Religion or Belief, Andrew Bennett, although his role per se did not last into Justin Trudeau’s government. Since then, the UK has appointed Lord Ahmad to the first-ever UK FoRB role, the need for which has recently been highlighted by the Bishop of Truro’s independent review into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s response to the persecution of Christians globally.

This summer, the Netherlands has appointed its own Ambassador with an emphasis on FoRB, Jos Douma, a former Ambassador to both Iran and the Holy See.

Illegally Detained Christian Tortured to Death in Custody in Pakistan, Family Says

Pakistan (Morning Star News) – Police in Lahore, Pakistan tortured to death the Christian father of 14-day-old and 7-year-old sons, relatives said.

Officers on Aug. 28 illegally detained 28-year-old Amir Masih on a false charge of theft and tortured him for four days before he died in a hospital on Sept. 2, his brother Sunny Masih told Morning Star News.

Interrogating officers in the 96-percent Muslim country “urinated on Amir’s face and body and mocked his Christian faith” while trying to torture him into a false confession, Masih said.

After filing an application with police on Aug. 31 alleging forced disappearance of Amir Masih, a member of the Church of Pakistan, relatives were informed that he had been taken into custody by a sub-inspector identified only as Zeeshan in connection with a theft case. Their repeated attempts to meet Sub-Inspector Zeeshan were blocked. They did know of Amir Masih’s whereabouts until an officer phoned Sunny Masih on Sept. 2 to tell him that his brother was not well and that they should come and take him to the hospital, Masih said.

“We rushed to the police station, where we were handed a semi-conscious Amir,” he said. “He was beaten up mercilessly, and his body was full of bruises. While we were taking him to the hospital, Amir told us that Inspector Nasir Baig, Sub-Inspector Zeeshan and four unidentified constables had tortured him continuously for four days.”

Sunny Masih said that while police released without a scratch all other employees who worked with Amir Masih, a gardener, after they were summoned about the alleged theft, his brother was subjected to severe torture because he was a poor Christian whom police believed could be coerced into a false confession.

“He told us that the police officials had urinated on him while cursing him for being a Christian and tried to force him to confess to the crime,” he said. “But my brother was innocent, and he refused to admit to something that he had not done, which further infuriated his interrogators. They increased the intensity of the violence, also subjecting him to electric shocks.”

Doctors at Services Hospital tried to save his life, but he succumbed to his injuries after a couple of hours, Masih said.

Working as a gardener in PAF Colony, Amir Masih was summoned to North Cantt Police Station in a phone call from Zeeshan regarding a theft case registered by his employer, Rana Mohammad Hanif, Masih said.

“Amir was present at Hanif’s house when he received the inspector’s call,” he said. “The watchman of the house told him that all employees had been summoned by the police to record their statements, and he should do the same. My brother went to the police station of his own will, but when he reached there the cops seized his phone, bundled him into a vehicle and spirited him to some unknown place.”

When he did not return home that evening, Sunny Masih and other relatives went out to search for him, he said.

“When I reached Hanif’s house to inquire about Amir, the watchman told me that he had been summoned by Sub-Inspector Zeeshan to record his statement,” he said. “For the next two days, we continued to search for both Amir and the police officer but failed to find any trace of their whereabouts.”

Autopsy

A post-mortem report on the death states that torture marks were visible on his hands, feet, back and arms. His ribs were also broken.

After news of the killing in custody spread on mainstream and social media and drew public ire, Punjab Inspector General of Police Captain Arif Nawaz Khan ordered registration of a case against Inspector Nasir Baig, Zeeshan and four other police officers and ordered a detailed report on the case.

Police have taken Baig and Zeeshan into custody, but the four other officers accused are still at large as no serious efforts have been made to arrest them, Masih said. Police at the same station where his brother was tortured registered his complaint for murder, illegal detention and torture.

Both Punjab Minister for Minorities and Human Rights Aijaz Alam Augustine and Shunila Ruth, a member of the National Assembly, said that they were making efforts to ensure justice for the grieving family of Amir Masih. Both officials are Christians.

Augustine said that he had visited the family and was in contact with police officials to ensure arrest of the absconding accused.

“This is a grave crime, and the accused police officers will be severely punished,” Augustine said, adding that the government would not show any leniency in cases of torture and custodial killings.

Ruth, who visited the victim’s family along with Punjab Gov. Muhammad Sarwar, said she would raise the matter in the National Assembly.

“The family’s claim that Amir was subjected to torture because of his Christian faith is not unfounded,” she said. “Unfortunately, there are segments in our society who continue to be prejudicial towards members of the marginalized communities.”

The two Christian officials said they believe they’ll be able to bring the perpetrators to justice, but attorney Saiful Malook, who gained fame for securing freedom for high-profile Christian blasphemy convict Aasiya Noreen (commonly known as Asia Bibi), said he feared the case would be swept under the carpet after the media hype dies because “police are known to protect their own.”

“Amir Masih’s murder in police custody is not only a serious crime but also a severe violation of the constitution,” he said. “Therefore, it should be taken up very seriously, and the police alone should not be trusted in this regard.”

Malook said that the First Information Report of the case also should have included the names of the deputy superintendent of police of the zone and the station house officer, as they were the supervisory officers and it was their responsibility to ensure that no citizen was subjected to illegal detention and torture.

“I’m sure the police misguided the complainant into naming only the six accused in order to save their seniors,” he said. “I am ready to provide pro-bono legal assistance to Amir Masih’s family, because I believe that they deserve justice on merit.”

Pakistan ranked fifth on Christian support organization Open Doors 2019 World Watch list of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, and on Nov. 28, 2018, the United States added Pakistan to its blacklist of countries that violate religious freedom.

Pakistan court upholds Asia Bibi blasphemy acquittal. She is free!

Pakistani Christian aquitted of Blasphemy charges

Attorney Aneeqa Maria, chief of The Voice Society, who pled the case of Pervaiz Masih released facts about his freedom from blasphemy charges in a statement shared with Pakistan Christian Post.

Pakistani Christian Pervaiz Masih, of Garhewala District Kasur, was accused of blasphemy on September 1st 2015. After 20 days of the submitting an appeal of innocence, he was granted bail. This case was different as rarely is bail ever granted to the accused. From start to finish, his trial took three years to be concluded.

Pervaiz Masih and his family suffered much even the loss od their three year old daughter. The statement claimed that Masih’s accusers murdered his little girl by drowning her in a well and later declared to have committed the murder to punish Pervaiz and his family for uttering derogatory remarks about their Prophet.

The report claims Pervaiz’s wife was tortured and received severe injuries while police interrogated her about her husband. Her bones were broken and she lost the ability to walk or stand straight. Pervaiz and his family were forced to stay in hiding during the 3 years after the blasphemy accusation.

The Honorable Court of Mr. Ejaz Ahmad Bosal accepted the application of acquittal filed by the Voice’s legal panel. However, he also gave a second chance to the complainants to re-open the case whenever they wish to do so. The Voice Society chief shared,

“For now, I am happy that he is free from his allegations, and if the complaints do not go for appeal against his acquittal he will always be free legally. But still he is a blasphemer and this allegation will follow his fate and it will be hard and challenging for him to survive this allegation.

People thought that after Asia’s release the situation will be different, or the attitude of the courts will be different. But I cannot find any difference in any sort of attitude. The things are the same as they were before, Pervaiz is released in three years because there was no evidence, and his case was pursued seriously.”

She thanked those who supported the case with their prayers and concerns. “I must say that it is because of their prayers that The Voice have got this opportunity to thank God and rejoice in him. Thank you for supporting this cause with your prayers.”

VOP Note: We rejoice with the news of this brother’s release. Please pray for his family, justice for those accused of blasphemy, the abolishment of the blasphemy law and protection for our brothers and sisters in Pakistan.

Photo: Pakistan Christian Post

Christian Brothers Sentenced to death for blasphemy

(Voice of the Persecuted) Pakistani Christian brothers, Qasir (also shared as Qaisar) and Amoon Ayub, have been sentenced to death in the Talagang District Jhelum court after being accused of blasphemy. Both brothers have been held under the charge of 295-A, B and C of the Pakistan Penal Code in the District Jail Jhelum since their arrest in 2014. Their case was heard on December 13, but due to security reasons, the brothers were not in the courtroom and told of the death sentence ruling from inside the jail. Qasir is married with three children, while Amoon is also married and a teacher at the Cathedral School in Lahore.

The allegations surfaced when they were accused of posting disrespectful material on their website, reported AsiaNews. However, Qasir said he closed his account in 2009 but one of his Muslim friends, Shahryar Gill, somehow managed to restore the website and kept ownership in Qasir’s name.

He had worked at the international office of the Raja Centre in Lahore. While at work in 2010, an argument broke out between his friends and one of them made a comment about another’s sister. The ‘friend’ blamed Qasir and warned him that it was a serious matter in Pakistan. Shortly after, Qasir started to receive death threats from them and he went into hiding. When the situation deteriorated he and his brother fled to Singapore without telling their wives. After a month, they returned to Pakistan and Amoon shared the whole story with his his wife. Yet the situation remained tense, so they left again this time for Thailand. Unable to survive there for very long, they went back to Pakistan in 2012.

After four years on the run they were arrested. A friend told Qasir that the authorities were looking for him. On November 10, 2014, while Amoon was on his way to work, the police detained him. They questioned him about his brother and said a case had been registered against him. Qasir told Amoon to stay hidden. Qasir was later arrested and sent to District jail Jhelum. Fearing for his safety, Amoon again tried to flee the country but was detained by Immigrant Police at the Lahore Airport. Later police sent him to Jhelum District Jail for the same offense as his brother.

Amoon’s wife did all she could to get her husband released, but has failed. She approached the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) for assistance.

(CLAAS) represented Qasir and Amoon and told Voice of the Persecuted that they will challenge the sentence before the Lahore High Court Bench at Rawalpindi as soon as possible. The group believes judges hearing blasphemy cases are threatened by religious fanatics and why those accused of blasphemy are convicted.

CLAAS-UK Director, Nasir Saeed told Voice of the Persecuted,

“This is a very unfortunate situation as because of threats from hardliners, lower courts pass their responsibility to the higher court and then it takes years to prove the accused innocent. In this case the trial Judge did not apply his judicious mind and convicted the accused in a very casual manner.

We have seen this in the recent case of Asia Bibi, who was similarly convicted by the lower court and it took her years to reach to the Supreme Court to get justice. I am afraid now Qasir and Amoon will have to wait years to get justice. It is a sad reality that the present government has no intention even to talk about or to take steps to stop the ongoing misuse of the blasphemy law. Pakistani President Dr Arif Alvi has already said that the government would not amend the law. This means the killing of innocent people will continue despite growing opposition to the law around the world.”

He shared that the Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has been acknowledged by the world for his recent decision of opening the Kartarpur corridor for Indian Sikhs. However, he has no plans for Pakistan’s own minorities. Nasir added that minorities feared Khan’s statements of making Pakistan a Medina-like state.

“Very recently, his statement that there is no mention of Jesus in history, hurting the feelings of Christians not just in Pakistan, but throughout the world,” he also lamented.

The sentence was handed down only two days after America put Pakistan on a religious freedom blacklist, and is expected to again draw attention to the country’s harsh blasphemy laws.

Qasir’s son (14yr.) has been experiencing extreme anxiety since his father’s incarceration. Please keep these brothers and their loved ones in your prayers.

Blasphemy death sentence appeal hearing postoned

(Voice of the Persecuted) The November 27, 2018 appeal hearing of Sawan Masih, a Pakistani Christian accused and sentenced to death for blasphemy, was postponed. Nasir Saeed, a spokesperson from CLAAS, Sawans’s defense counsel, told Voice of the Persecuted that they have yet to receive a rescheduled hearing date. It’s possible that the court avoided conducting the hearing deliberately because of the present situation in the country after Asia Bibi’s acquittal, he added. 

Sawan is at the center of a case that caused a mob of 3000 Muslim men to attack the Joseph Colony of Lahore, Pakistan in March of 2013. (View report and photos) After a local mosque announced the blasphemy charge over loudspeakers, the vigilantes stormed the Christian community where Masih lived. They burned or ransacked 180 Christian homes, 75 shops and at least two churches during the attack. Mob members threatened to burn the Christians alive if they tried to defend or hide in their homes. Hundreds of families were forced to flee for their lives as the angry mob destroyed their village. 

Masih was accused by his Muslim friend, Shahid Imran. A local bishop said the incident had more to do with personal enmity between the two men than blasphemy. He claimed the men got into a brawl after drinking late one night, and in the morning the Muslim man made up the blasphemy story as payback. Some claimed that Sawan was ‘winning’ their argument. They believe a Christian having the upper hand incensed Shahid Imran to falsely accuse Masih. Please keep praying for Masih and other victims of Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

Blasphemy: Christian death sentence appeal hearing on Nov. 27

Sawan Masih sentenced to death for blasphemy

PAKISTAN: Prayers are needed for Sawan Masih who has been on death row for blasphemy since 2014. Masih was accused by his Muslim friend, Shahid Imran, of making derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad in 2013. A case was registered against him under section 295-C of the Blasphemy Law which has a mandatory death penalty. Masih says the charge is false.

His case became internationally known when a large Muslim mob violently attacked Masih’s residential area, Joseph Colony, in Badami Bagh Lahore. The local mosque broadcasted the accusation via loudspeakers and a mob of more than 3,000 Muslims attacked Sawan’s home, looted and torched 180 Christian homes, 75 shops and at least two churches. Witnesses say the police stood and watched instead of stopping the attackers and protecting local Christians and their property.

Hundreds of families were displaced as the mob threatened to burn Christians alive in their homes unless they left. Sawan Masih was handed over to the police and has remained in custody ever since. See our March 2013 report and photos of the violent mob attack

Mob burns and destroys Christian neighborhood for blasphemy charge claimed to be false.

On March 27, 2014 the Lower Court sentenced Masih to death for committing blasphemy.  Soon after this verdict CLAAS filed an appeal against the conviction in the Lahore High Court, which is scheduled to be heard on Tuesday, November 27, 2018.

Sawan Masih’s wife and three children are very concerned and living in fear. CLAAS is providing free legal aid to Sawan Masih. Prayers have been requested and considered crucial for his safety and release.

Nasir Saeed, director of CLAAS-UK said, “This is a very unfortunate situation as although Asia Bibi was acquitted on October 31 by the Pakistan Supreme Court, she is not allowed to leave Pakistan despite several western countries being willing to accept her and her family.”

He added, “This is because the leader of the Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan has threatened the government, saying if she leaves the country, there will be war. Unfortunately for the last several decades, Islamist groups in Pakistan have become more powerful than the state. Now the situation is that everyone, whether it is the prime minister or the chief justice of Pakistan, they have to proclaim publicly that they equally love the prophet and would sacrifice their life for the prophet.

A review petition and separately a petition to add her name in the exit control list (ECL) has been filed in the supreme court and keeping in view the present situation I don’t think the review petition will be heard very soon.”

Mr Saeed also said, “Pakistan’s President Dr Arif Alvi’s statement that the government will not amend the blasphemy law is not very encouraging as we all know the blasphemy law is often used by Muslims to settle personal grudges and scores against their rivals, and Christians are the main target.  He said the blasphemy law needs change to stop its continuous misuse and the international community needs to remind Pakistan of this regularly.”

HEARING UPDATE HERE

Islamic Cleric who led protest against Asia Bibi acquittal arrested

Police detained radical Islamic cleric and (TLP) chief, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who led protests that brought daily life to a halt following the Supreme Court acquittal of Asia Bibi. On Friday, authorities began a nationwide crackdown and arrested over 1000 leaders and supporters of the Islamist party. The cleric’s arrest ignited violent clashes with police and several people were injured. A majority of the arrests took place in the province of Punjab, headquarters of the extremist Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party. They alleged the crackdown against the party and its leadership was to prevent them from protesting the acquittal.

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry dismissed those claims. He explained that Rizvi had been placed under “protective custody” because he refused to withdraw a fresh call for street protests on Sunday and turned down offers to organize the rally at a place proposed by the government. “It’s to safeguard public life, property and order and has to do nothing with Asia Bibi case.” The minister called for the public to remain “peaceful and calm and “the law shall take its course and it cannot be left to individuals.”

The charity Aid to the Church in Need stays in contact with Asia’s family. The charity spokesman, John Pontifex , relayed that the situation is constantly changing. In a recent conversation, the family told him that people were going door-to-door showing their pictures and asking if people had seen them.

Asia is currently in protective custody, pending an appeal lodged by the religious extremist TLP party against her acquittal.

Eisham Ashiq spoke publicly for the first time from a safe house in Pakistan since her mother was acquitted of blasphemy. Please keep Asia, her family, Christians in Pakistan and the nation in your prayers.

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