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UN human rights chief condemns Pakistan assassination, urges reform of blasphemy laws

GENEVA (2 March 2011) - The High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Wednesday condemned the assassination of Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, who is the second high profile public figure to have been killed since the beginning of the year apparently because of their opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Mr. Bhatti was killed when gunmen attacked his car in Islamabad on 2 March. On 4 January, the Governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was also assassinated in Islamabad by one of his own bodyguards, because of his opposition to the blasphemy laws, and in particular his call for a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, sentenced to death under those laws, to be pardoned.

“These murders are a tragedy for Pakistan and those who envision a future for the country centred on human rights,” the High Commissioner said. “I hope the Government of Pakistan will not only hold the killers to account, but reflect on how it can more effectively confront the extremism which is poisoning Pakistani society.”

The High Commissioner noted these high profile killings were symptomatic of pervasive violence against religious minorities in Pakistan and a lack of protection for their places of worship. She called on the Government to declare a moratorium on application of the blasphemy laws and commission a comprehensive review by independent and impartial experts.

“I urge the Government of Pakistan to honour the courageous stand of Mr. Bhatti and Mr. Taseer by supporting their position on the blasphemy laws,” she said. “To do otherwise will simply encourage similar acts of violence and lawlessness as a means of scaring governments off from making much needed human rights reforms. Murderers should not be rewarded by getting what they want, in terms of government policy.”

Pillay urged all Pakistanis to condemn the latest killing, saying she was appalled that a number of political and religious leaders, legal professionals and media commentators in Pakistan condoned, or even welcomed, the assassination of Salman Taseer in January, because of his opposition to the blasphemy laws and support for Asia Bibi,

“Experience around the world has shown that blasphemy laws often become a double-edged sword,” the High Commissioner added. “While aimed at protecting certain values, they are open to abuse and lead to violations of freedom of expression, freedom of religion and ultimately the right to life.”

The High Commissioner expressed concern about the many journalists, human rights advocates and public officials who have also been subjected to death threats for their opposition to the blasphemy law and urged the Government to take all appropriate protective measures to ensure their security and work is not compromised.

The High Commissioner also noted with alarm the spike in recent months of extrajudicial killings, abductions and disappearances of minority leaders and political activists in Baluchistan. More than 50 such cases have been reported since October 2010, with two judges and four advocates reported missing since 20 February. Journalists and human rights defenders have also been attacked: on (Tuesday) 1 March, a district coordinator for the NGO Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) was killed in Khozdar, and a second HRCP worker has been missing since December.

“There is an urgent need for political leadership in Pakistan to stem this wave of violence and ensure protection both for human rights advocates and for all Pakistani citizens,” the High Commissioner said.

OHCHR Country Page – Pakistan: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/AsiaRegion/Pages/PKIndex.aspx

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