“One must be determined and brave in standing up for human rights,” Salman Taseer told me at my last meeting with him at the Governor House, less than two weeks before he was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards angered by his opposition to blasphemy laws.
Taseer, the governor of Punjab and a member of the ruling PPP party, was widely regarded as one of the most high-profile and influential politicians in Pakistan. He was an ardent supporter of the underprivileged members of Pakistani society and vigorously promoted the rights of women and minorities. He had recently called for a Christian woman named Aasia Bibi to be pardoned from her death sentence for blasphemy, a crime that she denies committing.
The reason for my recent visit to Pakistan also related to Aasia Bibi’s case. Being a passionate advocate of human rights issues and the global rule of law, I went to Pakistan to engage in a hectic round of shuttle diplomacy, to push for the release of Aasia Bibi, and to compile a report on the role of minorities in Pakistan for the British Foreign Office and the EU delegation in Islamabad.
The blasphemy laws in Pakistan acquired teeth during the reign of General Zia ul-Haq when the crime was made punishable by death. The international community and human rights groups argue that since then it has become a tool, used to settle personal disputes and to discriminate against minority groups. The abuse of the law is widely regarded as effortless because no proof is required – an alleged blasphemer can be imprisoned and even executed on the assertion of witnesses.
Although the death sentence for blasphemy has never been carried out in Pakistan, angry mobs have killed many people accused of blasphemy. In 2009, 40 houses and a church were set ablaze by a mob of 1,000 Muslims in the town of Gojra, Punjab. At least seven Christians were burned to death in the horrific incident. And in July 2010 two Christian brothers accused of blasphemy were gunned down outside a court in the city of Faisalabad, while in custody.
During my time in Pakistan, I used my unique position as the youngest British Muslim councillor and my roots in the region as a means to impress upon the Pakistani leadership the gravity of the case of Aasia Bibi.
Out of the dozens of top government officials, opposition leaders and senior bureaucrats I met, I was most impressed with Taseer. I was struck by his sense of conviction and sincerity. “The extremists aim to instil fear in the minds of people,” he said to me in a grave tone, and later added: “But I am prepared to stand up to them and to help bring about a progressive and enlightened Pakistan.”
During my meeting with Taseer, I emphasised the need for the authorities to control and detain those engaged in hate speech, such as a radical cleric who had recently promised a reward of Rs500,000 (US$5,800) for anyone who killed Aasia Bibi. Taseer strongly agreed with me and seemed concerned about the state’s failure to prosecute such individuals. His swift and specific responses throughout our two-hour meeting highlighted his informed and knowledgeable character.
The death of Taseer is a huge blow to all those who are working for a peaceful and modern Pakistan.
I first met the late governor two years ago and I will thoroughly miss my conversations with him. He will be remembered as an inspiring and brave campaigner. Liberals in Pakistan who agreed with his secular views now know just how much danger they are in. But the true misfortune is for members of Pakistan’s long-suffering minorities, such as Aasia Bibi, who have lost their most courageous champion. Who knew that the price one could pay for speaking their mind could be their life?
Raza Anjum is a Conservative councillor in Saffron Walden, and a former policy adviser to the shadow home secretary and shadow attorney general.