Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told reporters in Geneva that the murder of Rashid Khan Rehman “has brought into stark focus the climate of intimidation and threats that permeates the work of human rights defenders and journalists” in Pakistan.
Rehman was shot dead by unknown gunmen in his chambers last Wednesday, having earlier been threatened inside a courtroom where he was appearing for a university lecturer facing charges under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
Colville urged Pakistan’s government “to ensure a prompt investigation and to bring the perpetrators to justice.”
“Pakistani authorities have the responsibility to ensure that human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists are able to carry out their work without fear of intimidation, harassment and violence.”
“We urge the government to redouble its efforts to prevent and investigate such attacks, whether committed by state or non-state actors, and to send a strong message that perpetrators will be held accountable,” Colville said.
Critics say Pakistan has some of the world’s most controversial blasphemy laws – carrying the death penalty for insulting Mohammed and up to life imprisonment for defiling the Qur’an – and also a poor record of ensuring justice in the frequent cases where the laws are abused, or in cases where crimes are committed linked to allegations of blasphemy.
In 2011 the Muslim governor of Punjab state, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by a member of his bodyguard angered by his support for amending the laws. Weeks later a prominent Christian opponent of the laws, federal minister for minorities affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, was shot dead by gunmen who left pamphlets accusing him of blasphemy.
Taseer’s self-confessed killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was hailed as a hero by clerics and lawyers offered him free representation. After he was eventually convicted and sentenced to death, the judge who presided over the case left the country after receiving death threats. Just last month Pakistani media reported that a mosque on the outskirts of Islamabad has been named in Qadri’s honor.
While Qadri himself has yet to be executed, Bhatti’s killers remain at large.
Pakistan’s government has refused to consider amending, let alone repealing, the blasphemy laws, which critics say are used disproportionately to target non-Muslim minorities, including Christians.
Pakistan’s repeated election onto the Geneva-based Human Rights Council (HRC) since its establishment in 2006 has underlined the inherent flaw of a human rights watchdog that has no enforceable criteria for membership.
Governments are asked to take into account candidates’ human rights records at elections each year, but voting takes place by secret ballot and most countries support whichever candidates are put forward by their regional grouping.
As a result Pakistan – and other countries with poor records, including Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and Cuba – have returned to the HRC year after year.
Pakistan has played an activist role in the council. As leader of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on the HRC, it spearheaded efforts leading to repeated condemnations of Israel, and led the Muslim bloc’s campaign against “religious defamation” – which critics say is an attempt to extend blasphemy-type restrictions beyond the Islamic world.
Pakistan most recently won another three-year term on the HRC in November 2012, and will be a member until 2015.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent watchdog, recently called on the State Department – as it has done every year since 2002, to no avail – to designate Pakistan a “country of particular concern” for egregious religious freedom violations.