Parliamentary question by Marco Pannella (NI) to the Commission and answer given by Mr Patten on behalf of the Commission

Parliamentary questions
by Marco Pannella (TDI) to the Commission
(5 September 2001)

Subject: Dr Yunis Shaikh sentenced to death in Pakistan

On 18 August 2001 Dr Yunis Shaikh was imprisoned in Adiala jail and sentenced to death for blasphemy by a Pakistani court. He is convicted of blasphemy for expressing the view that Mohammed and his family could not have been Muslims before the Prophet was inspired and other similar opinions, deemed offensive by the Pakistani clergy.

The trial was attended by a screaming crowd, whose feelings were whipped up by members of the clergy, while witnesses were called to court despite having stated that they had not been present when Dr Shaikh had made the alleged statements. He was given only one week to appeal to the Supreme Court instead of the usual thirty days. Even if nobody has hitherto been hanged for blasphemy in Pakistan, hundreds of people, charged with or convicted of blasphemy languish in prisons, inside the "death cells", where they can barely stand up.

Did the Commission follow Dr Yunis Shaikh's trial through the presence of its own representative? Has the Commission reacted officially to the death sentence passed on Dr Yunis Shaikh? Which initiatives has it taken or does it intend to take vis-à-vis the increase in convictions for blasphemy in Pakistan and, more generally, violations of fundamental human rights?

Answer given by Mr Patten
on behalf of the Commission
(2 October 2001)

The Commission is very concerned about the application of the blasphemy law in Pakistan. Blasphemy related to the Prophet Mohammed is subject to the death penalty, whereas blasphemy of the Koran is punishable by life imprisonment. To date a disproportionate number of cases have been brought up against religious minorities and the press.

The Commission is fully aware of the lawsuit against Dr. Yunis Shaikh, a Muslim, as raised by the Honourable Member. Dr. Shaikh was sentenced to death on blasphemy charges on 18 August 2001 and has since appealed the judgement, a lengthy process in Pakistan which can last years. Whereas todate, verdicts in blasphemy cases were revoked by higher benches, on 24 July 2001 a potentially dangerous precedent was set when in the case of Ayub Masih the appeal court upheld an earlier judgement.

On the occasion of a human rights conference organised by the Government of Pakistan in April 2000, a procedural reform of the blasphemy law was announced. However, following strong protests from religious groups the government withdrew the proposal.

The Commission is actively participating in joint Union efforts to address human rights issues in Pakistan as part of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. The blasphemy law was raised with the authorities during ad hoc political Troika talks in Islamabad on 20-21 November 2000. On 3 May 2001 the Troika carried out a demarche on the death penalty with the Minister of Law and Justice, Human Rights and Parliamentary Affairs. On this, as well as other occasions since then, the Union's concerns on the blasphemy law have been communicated to the Pakistan authorities.