HC Deb 09 June 1999 vol 332 cc605-12 12.30 pm
Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)

I begin by expressing my gratitude for this opportunity for a debate on human rights in Pakistan and the related persecution of the millions of Ahmadi people in that country. The worldwide headquarters of the Ahmadi people is in Putney, to where the supreme head of the people has had to move following threats to his life in Pakistan.

The Ahmadis are one of the 72 sects of Islam, although it should be remembered that there are even more sects in Christianity. Within Islam, the Sunni and Shi'ite sects are far larger, but there are about 20 million Ahmadis and the sect is growing quickly. The House of Commons Library estimates that there are about 5 million Ahmadis in Pakistan.

Discrimination against all minority religions in Pakistan is severe. Other hon. Members may wish to mention the plight of Christians, but the laws afflicting the Ahmadis are the most severe, involving life imprisonment and the death penalty for the simple profession of the Ahmadi faith.

The constitution of Pakistan, founded under Muhammed Ali Jinnah in 1948, is based on religious tolerance. Only in 1974 did the Government of Mr. Bhutto amend the constitution to deem Ahmadis to be non-Muslims. In 1984, General Zia ul-Haq passed ordnance 20, which made it a criminal offence, subject to imprisonment, to describe Ahmadis as Muslims. Even after the lifting of martial law in 1985, the constitutional position remained unchanged, and in 1986, the death penalty was introduced for forms of blasphemy—a measure aimed at the Ahmadis in particular.

In 1992, the death penalty was made mandatory. Amnesty International commented at the time that it was concerned that under the amended form of Section 295-C of Pakistan's Penal Code, members of the minority Ahmadiyya Community may face the death penalty as a mandatory punishment for the exercise of their religious beliefs. Of course, they now do. The democratic Governments of Pakistan since then have continued the use of ordnance 20 and the blasphemy laws to persecute the Ahmadis in Pakistan.

Freedom of thought, conscience and religion has long been recognised as the basic human right by all religions and all civilised societies. That right is enshrined in the founding charter of the United Nations, and in the United Nations charter on human rights—both of which have been signed by the Government of Pakistan.

When the then President of Pakistan, General Zia ul-Haq, was told by members of the UN Commission on Human Rights that ordnance 20 contravened the UN charter, he replied that Ahmadis personally offended him, that he was aware that ordnance 20 violated human rights but that he did not care. When she was Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto said that Ahmadis were declared non-Muslim in my father's rule. How can I undo the great service my father did for Islam? My Government will not give any concessions to Ahmadis. The present Government of Mian Nawaz Sharif follow the same restrictive practice of persecuting members of the Ahmadian movement on any and all charges, which include charges of un-Islamic activities, blasphemy, and even of calling themselves Muslim. During the latest census, many new Ahmadis were prosecuted for declaring themselves to be Ahmadis and Muslims. That shows not only a blatant breach of confidentiality by the Government in releasing such information, but it institutionalises persecution of the Ahmadis at the highest level. However, Pakistan is a peculiar state, which has chosen to legislate and enact laws, such as the recent anti-terrorism provisions, to target Ahmadis and to make the laws more barbarous and unbearable.

I shall give a couple of instances of that. An Ahmadi Muslim was accused by non-Ahmadis that he had preached and propagated his faith to the villagers, and was brought before the specially constituted anti-terrorist court. In spite of strenuous denials, the case was considered proven under Pakistan's penal code ordnance 295-C. He was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment and was fined 100,000 rupees. Only in Pakistan is preaching considered to be a terrorist offence.

Then there is the case of Mirza Ghulam Qader, a high official and a nephew of the supreme head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. He was murdered in broad daylight in front of many people. The assassins took refuge in a school and took the children hostage, before being killed in a shoot-out with the police. Large amounts of heavy weaponry, including rocket launchers, sub-machine guns and hand grenades, were recovered from the assassins' vehicle, which I believe pointed to a deeper conspiracy. Within two days, all the recovered weapons disappeared from police custody, leaving no proof or evidence of the offence.

That was only one of the high-profile murders of Ahmadiyya members in Pakistan. In fact, in the past year many members of the community have been murdered in broad daylight in front of witnesses, but no one has been apprehended or prosecuted for the crimes. The murders were all religiously motivated, and the victims included doctors, engineers, lawyers, business men and eminent citizens of their areas.

The Islamic National Front issued a very large prize for the murder of, among others, Mirza Tahir Ahmad, the supreme head of the worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim community. That news was covered in many well known mass-circulation newspapers in Pakistan on 1 October 1988. The INF declaration said that any Muslim warrior who despatches this enemy of Islam to hell will be offered cash prizes of 1 million rupees. The Government of Pakistan took no action against that incitement to international terrorism.

I should further point out that Pakistan alone among the Islamic states has taken this draconian stance towards the Ahmadis. So what should be done? I was pleased by the answer to a written question in the other place on 13 April this year, which stated that the Government have called upon the Government of Pakistan to prevent the misuse of that country's blasphemy laws and to introduce legislation which would abolish the death penalty for blasphemy."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 April 1999; Vol. 599, c. 118] However, we need to do more to protect the rights of all minorities to freedoms of religion.

Therefore, the following questions suggest themselves. Pakistan is a full member of the United Nations and a signatory to the UN human rights charter. At the next review, would it be possible for the British Government to take up the case of religious freedom in Pakistan? The US President has already spoken in support of the repeal of ordnance 20.

The UN Commission on Religious Intolerance is taking evidence. Can the Government support the petition of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Pakistan, and work to remove the fatwah placed on the supreme head of the Ahmadiyya community, as they have done successfully in other cases?

Pakistan is a member of the Commonwealth, whose human rights initiative, chaired by Dr. Kamal Hussein of Bangladesh, recently published its report on the right to cultural tolerance in all Commonwealth countries. Will the Government ensure that this report is fully debated at the Commonwealth conference in Durban, South Africa, this autumn? Will they also ensure that the situation in Pakistan is brought to the attention of all those present, perhaps in terms of a review of the 1991 Harare declaration, which Pakistan signed? That declaration spoke of fundamental human rights, including equal rights and opportunities for all citizens, regardless of race, colour or creed.

I hope that my hon. Friend will respond to me in writing in connection with those questions, but an additional question involves all Members of the House. Would it be possible for colleagues, at meetings of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, to raise our abhorrence of ordnance 20 and the blasphemy laws? An appropriate opportunity to raise those matters would be that organisation's annual conference this September.

The Ahmadis expect that clerics of other sects or faiths may object to their religion. Their criticism—and mine—is not of that. What is different in this case is that the Pakistani Government have institutionalised and supported such objections with the death penalty or life imprisonment.

The Putney debates of 1647 in St. Mary's church, Putney, speak down the centuries. The belief, which I share, is that it is not the state's responsibility to determine the religion of its subjects. Religion is personal and private. To any Government, all subjects should be equal when it comes to their personal and religious inclinations.

I shall finish by connecting this matter and the Jewish faith. This week is Anne Frank week. On 11 June, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, His Excellency Chief Emeka Anyaoku, will sign the Anne Frank declaration for the new millennium on behalf of the Commonwealth nations. It includes a pledge that people should work together for a better world, free of bigotry in the next millennium. Anne Frank was 15 when she died for her faith.

A 14-year-old boy, Nazir Ahmed, is in central prison, Hydrabad, Sind, awaiting sentence under the blasphemy laws as an Ahmadi. The sentence could be life imprisonment or death. Many Pakistanis must be repulsed and disgusted by that. May I recommend to the Government of Pakistan that they think about the fate of Anne Frank, the declaration and that 14-year-old boy, and repeal ordnance 20 and the blasphemy laws forthwith? By doing so they can demonstrate that Pakistan is a full member of the Commonwealth nations for the new millennium.

12.41 pm
Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) on securing this important debate. The headquarters of the Ahmadi community lie in his constituency, but I have the privilege of having the Ahmadi education and conference centre, called Islamabad, at Tilford. In the summer, up to 10,000 members of the Ahmadi community from around the world gather there. Tilford is a beautiful Surrey village, and it is a tribute to the community that the Ahmadis are valued, respected and well integrated. Around 25 families live there permanently.

During my time as a Member I have heard appalling tales of unhappiness and discrimination. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is appalling, given that Pakistan is a signatory to the United Nations declaration on human rights, that we cannot take further steps to protect a well-educated, civilised and public-spirited community. In Pakistan, the press is gagged; the judiciary appears to play to the gallery and there are arrests, trumped-up charges and assaults; employment opportunities are constrained; and there is no freedom of speech or religion.

In February, I put a question to the Minister's predecessor, Derek Fatchett. At the same time as the hon. Member for Putney, I received a reply in which Mr. Fatchett said that he had raised the matter during a recent visit to Pakistan. He had been assured by a Minister that the Pakistani Government were determined to ensure that all religious minorities received the rights granted to them by the constitution. That Minister was examining ways of ensuring that religious minorities could play their full part as equal citizens of Pakistan.

Mr. Fatchett said that the Government would monitor closely the situation of the religious minorities in Pakistan and would raise further concerns with the Pakistani Government. In the present climate, we would all agree that that is not enough. The hon. Member for Putney made specific and practical suggestions on how we could put greater weight behind the campaign to ensure that the Ahmadi community's human rights are recognised not only in the United Kingdom, but in Pakistan.

12.43 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) on his success in securing a debate that gives the House a timely chance to discuss an important issue that is rightly causing concern here and elsewhere.

From the outset, the Government have ensured that the promotion and observance of human rights has been at the very heart of our foreign policy. Intolerance, wherever it occurs and in whatever guise, is unacceptable. It is particularly disturbing that we are debating intolerance in Pakistan, a country with which Britain has so many links—history, culture, trade, development, sport and, of course, for many, family ties. Ours is a warm relationship of mutual respect, which allows us to speak freely to each other about our respective concerns.

My hon. Friend has specifically raised concerns about Pakistan's Ahmadiyya community. We share his concerns about the position of the Ahmadis, as we do about the position of other religious minorities in Pakistan, including Christians and Hindus. Those responsible for the establishment of Pakistan were wholly committed to religious tolerance. On the day of partition, the founding father of Pakistan, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, inspired and reassured the new citizens of a new nation with the words: You may belong to any religion, cast or creed … There is no discrimination, no distinction between one community or another. Those values are reflected in Pakistan's constitution. Article 20 says: Subject to law, public order and morality, (a) every citizen shall have the right to profess, practise and propagate his religion; and (b) every religious denomination and every sect thereof shall have the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions. Unfortunately, while the constitutional framework is clear, particular legal acts continue to give cause for concern, especially the controversial blasphemy laws. Article 295(c) of Pakistan's penal code prescribes the death penalty for those who by words, spoken or written, directly or indirectly, are taken to defile the name of the prophet Muhammed. The law has frequently been misused by groups and individuals to target members of religious minorities. Accusations of blasphemy can lead and have led to death sentences being handed down, although none has yet been carried out.

We have repeatedly asked the Pakistani Government to amend or abolish the blasphemy laws, of which Ahmadis are frequent victims. During our European Union presidency last year, we made representations in May. In October, we joined a further EU initiative about the blasphemy laws. At the recent Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva, the EU called for abolition of the death penalty for blasphemy.

The Ahmadi community do not believe that Pakistan's constitution gives them full freedom of faith. A constitutional amendment passed in 1974 declares them to be non-Muslim. That resulted in a change to Pakistan's penal code forbidding them the right to practise their religion as Muslims. Specifically, they cannot openly use traditional Islamic words, phrases or greetings without risking arrest and punishment of up to three years imprisonment plus a fine. That law, like the blasphemy laws, is open to abuse.

We know that there is a great deal of worry among the Ahmadis—indeed, among other minorities—about Pakistan's new anti-terrorist law. In particular, there is a fear that the new offence of civil commotion will be abused. Ahmadis have voiced fears that arrest under the blasphemy laws will result in cases being heard by the new anti-terrorist courts, in which there is no right of appeal. We have urged the Pakistani Government to implement the new laws fairly and responsibly.

Another piece of legislation, the Shariah Bill, has given rise to further concern over the position of non-Muslims in Pakistan. Although the Bill, which has yet to pass Pakistan's Senate—where it has failed to achieve the two thirds majority required if it is to become law—specifically protects the rights of religious minorities, there are fears that its wider effects may be to lower tolerance for religious diversity and women's rights. We do not consider that the proposed Bill is inimical to human rights per se, but we have urged on the Pakistani Government that the new law should adhere to internationally accepted human rights standards.

Those concerns relate to individual legal instruments, but the wider public and political atmosphere is equally important. We are worried by signs that general intolerance is on the increase. In relation to the Ahmadis in particular, we were greatly concerned by the recent decision of the Punjab provincial assembly to change the name of the principal Ahmadi town in Pakistan, Rabwah. In the wake of that, two senior Ahmadi leaders, Colonel Ayaz Muhammed and Mirza Masroor Ahmed, were charged under the blasphemy laws. We are watching their cases—and others—closely.

From what I have said, hon. Members will recognise that one of the main problems facing the Ahmadis and other religious minorities in Pakistan is the apparent gap between the protection that Pakistan's constitution gives to religious minorities and the drafting of individual laws and their day-to day implementation.

That is the very point that the late Derek Fatchett made during his visit to Pakistan in February, which the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) mentioned. He raised the issue of religious minorities with Pakistan's Minister of Law. He told the Minister of the great concern in the United Kingdom about the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan. The Minister acknowledged the concern outside Pakistan's borders, but said that there was great concern in Pakistan too. He said that the Government of Pakistan were concerned that all religious minorities received the rights given to them under Pakistan's constitution and that he would consult his colleague, the Minister for Religious Affairs, to examine ways to ensure that members of religious minorities are full and equal citizens of Pakistan. We will continue to keep that situation in mind.

We approach this subject as a concerned friend of Pakistan. It is with that in mind that we regularly raise these issues with the Pakistani Government. I am sure that the House will agree that it is important that we recognise where problems lie, but we must also recognise and acknowledge the efforts being made to put things right. Where we can, we must help those efforts.

It was in that spirit that last month, senior Foreign Office officials discussed a wide range of human rights issues with their Pakistani counterparts in Islamabad. The reports of religious persecution, the blasphemy laws and the anti-terrorist law were among the topics discussed. Pakistani officials acknowledged that religious tolerance was a cultural as well as a legal problem. We will of course continue to follow closely the progress on each issue.

It is important that the legal framework is right, and we will continue to urge the Pakistani Government to ensure that their laws are just and justly enforced. However, the key to changing wider social attitudes is education. Tolerance and respect for other cultures, religions and nationalities can be encouraged and, indeed, taught. It is there that we can make a practical difference.

The UK development programme for Pakistan, run by the Department for International Development, is worth approximately £25 million a year. It places a strong emphasis on improvements in human rights in all its projects and includes regular dialogue with the Government of Pakistan, other donors and advocacy groups in Pakistan about human rights issues. Current projects that are directly tackling human rights in Pakistan include a police training project for senior officers. We also hope to be able to do more to promote access for marginalised groups to the criminal justice system.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office also sponsors human rights projects in Pakistan. In Karachi, for example, Shell and the FCO have co-sponsored a human rights education project that has produced a human rights textbook on the rights of the child for use in schools It is proving very successful. We are actively pursuing other proposals.

For all the justifiable concern that reports of human rights problems and religious intolerance in Pakistan have caused, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Putney will agree that there remain grounds for considerable hope in Pakistan. The vast majority of the Pakistani people believe in the right to worship for each and every individual according to their beliefs. We believe that the Pakistani Government are sincere in wanting to tackle religious intolerance, which damages their country and its international reputation. We will continue to monitor reports of religious intolerance wherever they may occur and to raise our concerns, but change will not occur overnight. We are ready to offer practical help through our development aid programme.

Mr. Colman

I would like my hon. Friend to take up the points that I made—I realise that he has only just heard them—and raise them at the Commonwealth conference in Durban this autumn. In particular, will he take up the essence of the Harare declaration, which is relevant in this situation?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend anticipated my next sentence. I made a detailed note of the thoughtful suggestions in his excellent speech. I shall write to him in detail on each point. I hope that he would prefer a detailed exposition of the Government's response to my perhaps ad hoc observations.

Religious diversity is a fact in Pakistan, as it is in this country and that should be welcomed. Pakistan is the richer for the presence of religious minorities such as Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus, who will all contribute to the future of that great country.

12.55 pm

Sitting suspended.