Statement made on 29 September 2011 by Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette
Hon. Céline Hervieux-Payette:
Honourable senators, I would like to provide some additional information about yesterday's motion, which was rather condensed. I simply want to say that I got my information about Asia Bibi from a book that came out in France this summer. This book contains Asia Bibi's account of the incident that led her to be sentenced to death for blasphemy. The book is called Blasphème.
I think this is in the same vein as the statement by my colleague earlier regarding the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia.
The book is called J'ai besoin de vous, and in the beginning it is Ms. Bibi who said:
. . . woman whose story has touched the lives of millions and has renewed the debate on religious freedom and human rights from Pakistan all the way to up to the United Nations.
I am aware that the government has intervened, but I do not think that the Canadian public is very familiar with the current situation.
As practising Catholics, Ms. Bibi and her family are a minority in Ittan Wali, a small village composed entirely of Muslims. In fact, there are 150 Muslim families and two Christian families. This situation led to growing tensions between her and the other women in her village.
On June 14, 2009, she was accused of blasphemy by her neighbour for offering a glass of water to a woman who appeared to be troubled as they were working in the fields in 45-degree heat. At that moment, her neighbour shouted that the woman should
not accept the glass since Ms. Bibi had apparently contaminated the well's water by being Christian.
For her "crime" that day, she was severely beaten and brought to the police station where the village mullah gave her two choices: convert to Islam or die.
The next day, her trial before the regional court of Nankana was short and swift. And to the great pleasure of the three mullahs present when the sentence was handed down, Asia Bibi became the first woman in Pakistan to be sentenced to death for blasphemy in the last century.
Religious tension in Pakistan continued with the assassination of Punjab's Muslim governor, Salmaan Taseer, and the religious minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, both of whom fought to amend Pakistan's blasphemy law. To this day, publicly criticizing the blasphemy law or defending Ms. Bibi carries a real risk of death.
Any internal reform of Pakistan's legal system is unthinkable because the threats of violence are too serious, which leaves the international community as the only voice capable of putting pressure on Pakistani society.
Asia Bibi's story touched me deeply and I first became aware of it during a meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Forum of the Americas, an association I belong to, which recently became ParlAmericas.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee recently adopted Comment No. 34 which is based on the recommendations of the European Centre for Law and Justice. I quote:
. . . since any restriction on freedom of expression constitutes a serious curtailment of human rights, it is not compatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights for a restriction to be enshrined in traditional, religious or other such customary law.
Ms. Bibi's case illustrates the dangers of religious extremism and how the international community can combat terrorism and intolerance by putting pressure on countries that flout human rights and freedom of religion.
As Human Rights Watch points out, Pakistan's institutions lack independence and their legal framework favours religious extremism rather than human rights. If Pakistan is to become a free and open democracy, it must immediately begin reforming its judicial and legal system. The judicial system in Pakistan must achieve and arm's-length distance from religious leaders, the military and the political elite. Furthermore, better training must be given to all security forces to protect rather than persecute religious freedoms and human rights.
Second, the Pakistani government must immediately repeal the blasphemy law and stand up to religious extremists who constantly defy the principles of human rights and democracy by threatening Pakistan with fear and repression. The Pakistani government has an obligation to the international community as a member of the United Nations and a responsibility to its citizens to implement the social and economic development of Pakistan in the 21st century
Third, terrorism, extremism and poverty can all be combatted with a serious and substantial investment in education in Pakistan. Pakistan's literacy rate is 58 per cent and dips below 20 per cent in rural communities. Illiteracy contributes to discrimination and facilitates the propagation of extremism. Pakistan needs to increase its supervision of its educational institutions and monitor the curriculum to ensure that it is free of content that is contrary to international law and human rights.
Finally, religious minorities need to have increased participation in Pakistani society with their inclusion in government, civil service, industry and civil society.
As the international community increases its pressure on Pakistan we can only hope that they choose to open themselves to the outside rather than close themselves off from the world. The fate of Pakistan's evolution as a modern society rests entirely on its ability to reform and spare the life of a poor, uneducated, farm girl named Asia Bibi.
I would add that the Pope has intervened in this matter and more than 700 parliamentarians from the European Parliament voted in favour of a similar motion. Why? Because anyone willing to defend Asia Bibi in public receives death threats.
I am asking my colleagues in the House of Commons to follow suit and for the Parliament of Canada to support this woman, to support freedom of religion and the Charter of Rights, knowing that when Pakistan endured flooding and other natural disasters, Canada intervened. It was through the generosity of Canadians that we were able to help the Pakistani people.
We are entitled to ask the Pakistanis to respect their fellow citizens, in particular a woman languishing in a cell, who has been cut off from the world for over two years and deserves our support.