Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady, and to welcome you to the Chair, with Mr Turner having departed.
It is a pleasure to be able to speak in this debate, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for securing it. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah), who spoke passionately and knowledgeably about this issue.
I am delighted to have an Ahmadiyya community in my constituency at the Baitur Rahman mosque in Yorkhill. The community there are a model in the work that they do in reaching out to the wider community. They do regular community clean-ups, and they hold events to raise funds for Yorkhill Children’s Charity. Indeed, one of my first invitations as an MP was to start, and run in, the 5 km race that they held in Kelvingrove park. It was an absolute pleasure to run alongside them and to help at that event. They also hold dinners to celebrate and to invite in their neighbours, of all faiths and none, for discussions and to talk about peace. They even once provided pakora for my campaign team when we had set up our stall nearby, so they definitely have a place in my heart. They could not be more welcoming. I was also pleased and honoured to be asked to visit their Jalsa Salana event at Alton over the summer, at which I found out a good deal more about the Ahmadiyya community around the world and the humanitarian and education work in which they are involved. That very impressive event reflected the way they reach out to other faiths and bring other people in to find out more about what they do.
What I have also found out about, on that visit and in my continued dealings with the Ahmadiyya community, is the severe persecution that it faces. Despite adhering to many of the core tenets of the Islamic faith, including the five pillars of Islam and the six articles of belief, Ahmadiyya Muslims have been subject to persecution across the globe. I am particularly disturbed by the scale of that in Pakistan, a country with which the UK and Scotland have many close links. In Pakistan, as has been said, Ahmadiyya Muslims are not recognised as Muslims by the country’s constitution and are therefore denied their fundamental rights, such as the right to vote and freedom of religion. They have been persecuted, but the state has also enabled that persecution by not protecting Ahmadi Muslims under the law, in clear violation of international human rights obligations.
I want to discuss access to justice in particular. In Pakistan, since 1974, Ahmadi Muslims have not been recognised by the constitution, and since 1984 the penal code has made it a crime for Ahmadis to self-identify as Muslims. That means in practice that should an Ahmadi Muslim face a religiously motivated attack, they would be incriminating themselves even by reporting it. Specifically, section 298-C of the Pakistan penal code states that any
“person of the Quadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves ‘Ahmadis’ or by any other name), who directly or indirectly, poses…as a Muslim”
can face up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine. For most such offences, bail is granted only at the discretion of the court, and they can be pursued by the police without the need for an arrest warrant.
In its November 2015 report, entitled “On Trial: The Implementation of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws”, the International Commission of Jurists challenged the vague and unfair nature of those laws, picking up on the impact that they have on various religious communities, including the Ahmadiyya community. I will quote directly from the report:
“The vague wording of section 295-C has particularly affected members of the Ahmadiyya community. In some cases, judges have interpreted the expression of religious beliefs by Ahmadis, as understood by the court, as a form of blasphemy.”
The report mentions several cases, but most disturbingly of all it states:
“Justice (r) Mian Nazir Akhtar, who is reported to have made public statements calling for the killing of ‘blasphemers’, was a member of the Bench.”
He was dispensing justice while having those beliefs, and having encouraged people to kill those found to be “blaspheming”. Those views are absolutely appalling and should have no place in any justice system in the world.
According to a campaign website that the Ahmadiyya community have set up, stopthepersecution.org, Ahmadi Muslims have been attacked and buildings and monuments have been desecrated and destroyed since the criminalisation of the faith in 1984. That includes several hundred people being killed or assaulted, 65 Ahmadi Muslims being denied burial in a Muslim cemetery, 83 mosques being destroyed, sealed or forcibly occupied, the banning of the construction of 52 mosques and, distressingly, 39 Ahmadi bodies being exhumed after burial. Such incidents go largely unpunished in Pakistan’s legal system. It is clear that those who perpetrate such acts can do so with the tacit agreement of the state.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden mentioned the family whose home was burnt down while they were inside it and the lady, Mubashara Jarra, who survived the attack but lost the baby she was carrying and her two nieces, and whose mother died of smoke inhalation. The incident that triggered that is claimed to have been a blasphemous Facebook post by an Ahmadi youth. It seems absolutely incredible that someone making a comment on social media could result in the burning down of people’s homes and the attacking of a community, but that is just a picture of the discrimination that this community faces in Pakistan. It is said that during the attack the police did very little to intervene, and there has not been much justice since then, either. It is a desperately worrying situation.
Several hon. Members mentioned Mr Tahir Mehdi Imtiaz, who has been detained for almost a year without charge for allegedly publishing blasphemous material. Again, that is a violation of article 9 of the universal declaration of human rights, which sets out that there should not be arbitrary detention or arrest without charge. My understanding from what I have read is that he has not yet been bailed or a trial date set.
The anti-blasphemy laws in Pakistan allow for wide-ranging complaints against persons, and it is reported that they are often used against the Ahmadiyya community as well as other religious minorities in the country. The UK Government, I hope, would agree with me that that is unacceptable. I would like them to use the influence that we have from our long-standing relationship with Pakistan in many different ways to challenge the Government of Pakistan to change their position and scrap that unfair, unjust and discriminatory law. Pakistan ostensibly supports the universal declaration of human rights, so it must remove the anti-Ahmadi laws from its constitution.