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by Eric Avebury, Vice-Chair, Parliamentary Human Rights Group
Ever since its formation in 1976, the Parliamentary Human Rights Group (PHRG) has observed with concern the rising tide of intolerance and fanaticism in Pakistan, and the dire effects these trends have had on the rights and freedoms of the Ahmadiyya Muslim communities living in that country in particular. In the early days of independence it was possible for talented Ahmadis like Sir Zafrullah Khan, Pakistan’s first Foreign Minister, or Professor Abdus Salam, the Nobel Prizewinning physicist, to rise to the top of their professions; today they face multiple threats to life and property; are effectively disfranchised and prevented from holding public gatherings 1; are denied access to higher education 2, and are barred from entry to public employment except at the lowest levels.
In 1996, a report commissioned by the PHRG outlined the situation of the Ahmadis as it was then, describing murders, wrongful arrests and imprisonments, attacks on Ahmadi Mosques, and widespread religious discrimination 3. The UN Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance said in a report of his visit to Pakistan that year that the laws were ‘likely to foster intolerance in society’, and the specifically anti-Ahmadi law was ‘particularly questionable and in some respects frankly unwarranted’.
In 2000, I attended the launch of President Musharraf’s human rights programme in Islamabad, and expressed satisfaction on hearing of his intention to mitigate the worst effects of the blasphemy law by providing that a First Information Report (FIR) on this offence could only be lodged with the approval of a senior police officer. Unfortunately this signal of reform was greeted by an outburst of hostile invective from the small but vociferous anti-Ahmadi lobby, and the concession was withdrawn. There has been no let-up since then on the progressive tightening of the screws, or any mitigation of the flood of hate speech directed against the Ahmadis by the fanatical Khatme Nabuwwat (Finality of the Prophethood) organisation. It is easy enough, in a society where most people are poor and ignorant, to stir up violent prejudice against a religious minority holding views that are considered heretical by the majority, and to use the law of the land to make the ‘heretics’ into non-citizens, as we know from our own history. That path leads ultimately towards genocide.
In recent years, the PHRG has noted that an increasing number of Ahmadis, trying to escape the persecution in which they are trapped in Pakistan, have sought asylum in the UK, and although many have succeeded, our impression was that an increasing proportion were being refused. In a number of cases the reasoning was that, while the applicant might have had a well-founded fear of persecution within the meaning of the Refugee Convention if he returned to his locality of origin, he would be safe enough if he migrated internally to the city of Rabwah, founded by the Ahmadiyyah community and inhabited by a majority of Ahmadis. The anecdotal evidence we had from Rabwah was that life in Rabwah itself was severely restricted and that residents were subject to the same conditions, including occasional violence and intimidation, that occur elsewhere in Pakistan, and there was no real safety in numbers.
It was decided to invite a panel of experts to visit Rabwah, hold discussions there, and also meet the authorities in Islamabad, to get as comprehensive a picture as possible of the conditions under which Ahmadis were living there. Dr Jonathan Ensor, the Senior Research Officer at the Immigration Advisory Service, Ms Frances Allen and Mr Michael Ellman, immigration practitioners, generously gave their time to this project, which involved not just the visit itself, but a considerable commitment of time to preliminary meetings and the drafting of their report. The PHRG thanks them warmly for their work, and hopes it will make a significant contribution to the determination of appeals that turn on the feasibility of internal flight.
The report itself draws no conclusions, allowing the facts to speak for themselves. However, the statistic that out of a total of 60 blasphemy FIRs recorded in 2005 against Ahmadis, 25 were in Rabwah alone, indicates that the misuse of the law is as severe in Rabwah as in the rest of Pakistan. Evidence was seen by the mission that the Ministry of the Interior caused local police to issue proceedings against Ahmadis in Rabwah, as elsewhere, for action including distribution of literature, propagation of their faith, and collecting funds, and this led to the closure of a newspaper. The community also suffers more severely in Rabwah because of the presence of a Khatme Nabuwwat mosque and a madrassa, which regularly incites hatred against the Ahmadis, leading to systematic intimidation and violence. The mullah acknowledged that his followers chanted ‘Death to the Ahmadis!’, but pretended that the attack was on beliefs not persons.
Clearly, since Ahmadis are unable to vote – and are not even registered since that would mean denying their faith – they play no part in the local government of Rabwah, but neither are they to be found among local police or officials. The evidence shows that hardly anything is spent on public services in the town, though Ahmadis themselves club together to repair roads and drains. In Rabwah, as elsewhere, the schools were nationalised by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. They were denationalised in 1996, but in Rabwah, although the Ahmadis bought the schools back, they remain in government ownership, now derelict and dangerous.
This report makes clear the precariousness of life for Ahmadis in Rabwah, starved of opportunities for education and employment, menaced by the Khatme Nabuwwat and their rent-a crowd mobs bussed in from miles around, prevented from buying land in the town they developed. They are deprived of the right to manifest their religion in worship, observance, practice and teaching, as laid down in the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and they are constantly under threat of prosecution under the infamous blasphemy laws. This place is not a safe haven for Ahmadis fleeing persecution elsewhere in Pakistan; it is a ghetto, at the mercy of hostile sectarian forces whipped up by hate-filled mullahs and most of the Urdu media. The authors of this report expose the reality of a dead-end, to which even more victims should not be exiled.