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Adjournment Speech: Christian persecution in Pakistan
Tonight I wish to raise again in this House the case of Asia Bibi, a 53-year-old Christian woman who since 2010 has been facing death row in Pakistan. Her crime? She’s alleged to have committed blasphemy. Indeed, in 2010, Asia Bibi was accused by two Muslim women of having polluted a cup of water by drinking from it, and she has since spent eight years in jail, away from her five children. Earlier this month, Ms Bibi had her appeal heard by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, and she is now waiting indefinitely for a verdict. Many international onlookers stand by Asia Bibi and see her plight as a symbol of suffering in the face of terrible intolerance and injustice.
The imminent decision provides both a challenge and an opportunity for the people of Pakistan at a time when fundamentalists continue to exert pressure. The blasphemy laws in question were introduced in 1987, and it’s estimated that Pakistan prosecuted fewer than 10 people for blasphemy in the four decades before the passage of these laws. In the three decades after, that number has skyrocketed to 1,500. These laws have also been interpreted to in effect impose an apostasy law, which can result in a death penalty for Muslims whose choose to convert religion or become an atheist.
In 2011, a bodyguard murdered Punjab Governor Salman Taseer for visiting Asia Bibi in prison and for calling these blasphemy laws a ‘black law’, prone to abuse. There’s a growing concern that these laws are becoming a tool to target minority groups. Indeed, two months after that event, gunmen killed Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian politician who also opposed the law. The leader of the TLP, an Islamic fundamentalist party started three years ago, hails the murderer of Mr Taseer as a martyr and has called for all blasphemers to be killed.
However, these are not matters just unique to these individuals. During the general election campaign in the middle of this year, the now Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, vowed to defend these blasphemy laws. He claimed that the death penalty for blasphemy helps maintain peace in society.
Whilst many pundits and commentators around the world offer sympathy to Asia Bibi and those in her situation, the time for vain platitudes is over. This year Australia is going to spend over $40 million in direct foreign aid to the government of Pakistan. When Australia supports foreign aid, as it does, it has a number of objectives in mind, one of them being ‘supporting stabilisation and resilience’. A program overview says that supporting ‘Pakistan’s stability is critical to economic growth and human development’.
If this objective is ever fully to be realised, our support must be contingent on countries like Pakistan ensuring that they don’t violate these most basic of human rights. The people of Australia expect aid to reach those people in need, not to prop up extreme regimes, and no person requires more assistance than those who are prevented from access to the most basic of human rights: thought and life.
In Australia, we are so fortunate to live in a society of opportunity, fairness and justice. We have a legal system that ensures a fair trial, and a political system that gives a voice to minorities. We have a country where people can walk down the road to their church, synagogue or mosque without fear of imprisonment or death. So some might ask: why would an Australian politician come to Canberra and speak up about these issues? It is because one of the last members of the government in Pakistan to speak out against the injustice for Asia Bibi was killed. This is not an option to those politicians in Pakistan. Australia and countries like it which provide generous assistance to countries like Pakistan have an ability to speak up and must speak up.
My point is: Pakistan can and should seek to benefit financially as a global citizen, but it must do it by stamping out terror and abuse of its own citizens. Holding a belief is not a crime. A regime killing people for an alternative belief is.