Pakistan elections rescheduled amid fears of minorities

By staff writers
January 2, 2008

Pakistan's elections, which were originally scheduled for 8 January 2008, will now take place on 18 February, the authorities have announced - amid widespread scepticism. Campaigners for Christian and other minorities say they fear for the future.

The announcement was made today (2 January 2008) by the country's polling officials. The chief election commissioner said that it would not be possible to hold the vote as scheduled following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto last week, following which some 50 people have died in widespread disturbances.

But douts remain as to whether even this new date is tenable. Laws censoring radio and TV introduced by President Pervez Musharraf at the end of last year as part of his State of Emergency remain in place even after the emergency was ended, under international presure.

This means, say analysts, that the freedom and fairness of any elections held in February will be severely under question. Today one newspaper in Islamabad, the nation's capital, contained a full page feature outlining the ways in which the election can be fixed and manipulated by the government.

The killing of the former Prime Minister and opposition leader has been "devastating news" for Pakistan's hard pressed Christian minority, according to CLAAS, an organisation based in the UK and Pakistan which campaigns for the rights of the 3.5 million-strong Christian community.

Nasir Saeed, director of CLAAS (Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement - said last week that Ms Bhutto had been "the best hope" for the country's minorities as well as the nation.

He declared: "We had spoken with Ms Bhutto about the appalling persecution that Christians currently face. She listened hard to our grievances, and promised that she would attempt to rectify the situation, once she was back in the Parliament. Pakistani Christians around the world had been praying for her and supporting her for many years now. She was the most enlightened and moderate politician and struggled hard to bring real democracy to the country."

Other human rights and democracy campaigners inside and outside Pakistan have remained more sceptical, pointing to the strong evidence for corruption in relation to some of Ms Bhutto's entourage, and the non-democratic, dynastic nature of the Pakistan People's Party she headed.

The CLAAS spokesperson continued: "The Christian minority in Pakistan has suffered a great loss and now fear that they will never be able to replace Ms Bhutto of whom they held great hopes for an end to fundamentalism and persecution."

Although Pakistan's constitution promises equal rights for all, the country's non-Muslim population are effectively second class citizens, activists say.

CLAAS says it receives hundreds of first-hand accounts of wrongful arrest, imprisonment, torture and even execution of Christians. Similarly, it says, reports of attacks, rapes and murders on Christians go un-investigated by the police and courts.

At the heart of many of these incidents is the nation's Blasphemy Laws, human rights campaigners point out.

These laws stipulate a death penalty for profaning the name of the Prophet Mohammed, or defacing the Qur'an. The laws have been used for arrest and harassment of Christians and others, sometimes based on an uncorroborated allegations made by someone with a score to settle say lawyers.

A bill was brought before Pakistan's elected parliament in 2007, attempting to amend the Blasphemy Laws. It was dismissed by Parliamentary Affairs minister Dr Sher Afghan, who declared "Islam is our religion and such bills hurt our feelings. This is not a secular state but the Islamic Republic of Pakistan."

Mr Saeed says that CLAAS will fight on, offering individual legal aid, and support for everybody suffering because of these laws. But, he said, it was time for the international community to speak out more.

He commented: "If enough people knew about these appalling injustices, and made their voices heard, we could finally bring an end to the endless tales of torture, rape, execution and mob violence that we have to read about as a matter of course at CLAAS."

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