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Church and rights groups call on government to improve human rights situation

ICC Note:
Catholic human rights commission says that “the pace of reforms has been very slow,” and that Christians continue to face discrimination and violence.

UCAN (12/19/06) — To mark International Human Rights Day, the human-rights commission of the Pakistani Catholic bishops again called on the government to end discriminatory laws and policies.

The country’s 1.5 million Christians still face discrimination and violence along lines of religion and class, while terrorism, sectarianism and violence against women affect members of all communities, the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) said in a press release.

“We consider the lack of respect for rights and freedoms of the people to be the main cause behind this situation,” the commission said in the statement signed by Archbishop Lawrence J. Saldanha of Lahore and Peter Jacob, commission chairperson and executive secretary, respectively. It issued the statement for International Human Rights Day, observed on Dec. 10.

The Church group welcomed the efforts of the government to improve the status of women by enacting the Women’s Protection Bill, but it nonetheless expressed concern that “the pace of reforms has been very slow.”

President Pervez Musharraf signed the Women’s Protection Bill into law on Dec. 1. The bill dropped the death penalty for adultery and flogging for extramarital sex. It also allows rape cases to be tried in criminal court, particularly when four witnesses are not available, as required under the Shari’a Islamic legal code as introduced in 1979 by the former military ruler and president Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, now deceased.

An estimated 30,000 crimes against women were reported nationally in the last five years, according to the NCJP, including 6,603 cases of torture, 6,519 murders, 6,505 abductions, 4,770 honor killings, 3,722 rapes, 1,570 burnings, 536 cases of police torture and 218 trafficking cases. Additionally, 5,542 women were reported to have committed suicide.

“Bonded labor, resource distribution disparity, extra-judicial killings, involuntary disappearances, the existence of redundant and discriminatory laws, for example blasphemy laws, are just a few of the unresolved issues,” the bishops’ commission maintained in its statement.

On Dec. 10, local branches of the commission held seminars in Faisalabad, Hyderabad and Rawalpindi. International Human Rights Day “reminds us of the noble struggle, evolving common standards for all beyond discrimination due to religion, conscience, identity or origin,” Father John Murad said during the seminar at the Hyderabad press club. The priest is vicar general of Hyderabad diocese and director of its NCJ unit.

About 100 participants at that event in Hyderabad, Sindh province’s second-largest city, 1,040 kilometers south of Islamabad, also rallied outside the press club. They carried banners and placards including “Rehabilitate Human Rights,” “End Karo Kari (honor killings),” and “Abolish blasphemy laws.” Honor killings, which involve a family killing one of its members for having brought dishonor on the family, typically through an unapproved liaison, are most frequent in Sindh.

Earlier this year the NCJP publication Human Rights Monitor published statistics regarding blasphemy cases in 2005. According to the Mar. 20 edition, 107 people were accused of blasphemy last year: 92 in Punjab, eight in Sindh and seven in North West Frontier Province. They comprised 65 Muslims, 26 Ahmadis, six Christians, four Hindus and six whose religion is not known. It said a total of 641 had been charged with blasphemy and 105 more accused but not formally charged since 1986, when the laws punishing blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad and the Qur-an with death and life imprisonment, respectively, were introduced under Zia.

Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims but have been declared non-Muslims by the government, as in some other countries with large Muslim majorities. About 97 percent of Pakistan’s more-than 160 million people are Muslims. Christians, the largest of the small minority communities, live mostly in Punjab, the most populous province.

Victims of “enforced disappearances” were the focus of a Dec. 10 demonstration organized by the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in front of the parliament building in Islamabad. According to human rights groups, 110 of 242 people missing since 2000 are from Balochistan, the least populous province, where tribal groups are seeking autonomy. Another 70 are from Sindh, 42 from Punjab and 20 from North West Frontier Province.