Bulletin # 135 (21 November 2004)



Taslima Nasreen receives UNESCO award

Nigeria: No stoning to death, for now - but Sharia Criminal Code has to go! - RI writes to President Obasanjo

Pakistan: Change in blasphemy law - welcome, but inadequate



Taslima Nasreen receives UNESCO award

Taslima Nasreen
Taslima Nasreen

Rationalist International congratulates its Honorary Associate Taslima Nasreen, who received the 2004 UNESCO Mandajeet Singh Prize for promotion of tolerance and non-violence. Taslima Nasreen was honoured for her courageous and undefatigable fight for human rights, freedom and equality for women under Islam. The Bangladeshi physician, poetess and writer of more than 20 books, some of them translated in 20 languages, had to flee her country in 1994, when Islamic fundamentalists vowed to kill her. Since then, she has been living in exile in Europe and in the USA.Taslima is also recipient of the Kurt Tucholsky Award of the Swedish PEN Club, of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought of the European Parliament and of the Indian literature prize Ananda Puroshkar. Currently she is researching at Harvard University on secularization and women's emancipation in Islamic countries.

The biannual prize, which has been created in 1995 with the help of the Indian writer and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Mandajeet Singh and carries 100.000 Dollars, was overhanded on 16 November by UNESCO director general Koiichi Matsuura in a function at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. In 2002, the prize had been awarded to Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.


Nigeria: No stoning to death, for now - but Sharia Criminal Code has to go!

RI writes to President Obasanjo

18-year-old Hajara Ibrahim can breethe again. The appeal court quashed the stoning death sentence against her, which had been handed down by the local Sharia court in Lere, Bauchi state, on 5th October 2004. The judge in the Upper Sharia court in Dass declared that convicting the pregnant young woman for adultery had been incorrect, as she was not married. Sexual relations before marriage are according to Islamic criminal law fornication, punishable with whipping. Accepting the argumentation of Hajara's lawyer Abdulkadi Suleiman, Judge Mohammed Mustapha Umar also criticised procedural mistakes of the local court. The accused had, for example, not been allowed to make a statement before the death sentence was passed.

Expressing relief about the decision of the appeal court in the case of Hajara Ibrahim, Sanal Edamaruku, President of Rationalist International, urged President Olusegun Obasanjo in a letter to use his high office to ban Sharia Criminal Law in all of Nigeria. "Sharia Criminal Courts in Northern Nigeria are handing down inhuman and barbaric punishments violating international human rights standards and agreements ratified by Nigeria as well as the Nigerian Constitution. It cannot be in the capacity of the governments of the states to adopt and implement legal systems violating the Constitution of Nigeria", Edamaruku wrote. "It is your principal duty as the Head of the State to guarantee that human rights are respected and protected. Please do not further allow Sharia courts to switch terror on and off and play with life and dignity of Nigerian citizens."

Hajara Ibrahim's is one among several cases, in which local Sharia courts handed down stoning death sentences during the recent years, which caused worldwide shock and outrage and were finally quashed by the appeal court cyting procedural mistakes. While executions under Sharia do take place in Nigeria, there has been according to our information no stoning execution so far. But there is no guarantee that it will remain like this. And there are also convicts like Yunusa Rafin-Chiyawa, who was sentenced to stoning death in June 2002 and is languaging in the death cell of an Nigerian prison since then.

The case of Daso Adamu, sentenced on 15 September 2004 by another local Sharia court to death by stoning, is still pending with the appeal court.

[See reports in Bulletin # 88, # 93, # 102 and # 133.]


Pakistan: Change in blasphemy laws - welcome, but inadequate

The National Assembly of Pakistan passed - against the votes of the fundamentalist coalition Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal - a bill aimed at reducing the abuse of the blasphemy laws, which include No. 295 B, C and 298 A, B, C of the Pakistan Penal Code. The amendment demands that allegations have to be investigated for substance by a serior police officer before criminal charges can be filed. Presently, vague claims against a person are taken as base for immediate arrest and accusation. Investigations are done later, if at all, often by junior officers. Due to this arbitrary procedural regulations, the blasphemy laws are not only a deadly dagger in the hands of religious fanatics, but also a cheap and brutal instrument for any unscrupulous person to settle personal vendetta, propperty arguments and many other things, which don't have any however farfetched connection to religion.

The amendment will come into effect as soon as the bill is passed by the Senate. It may reduce the abuse of the blasphemy laws significantly, but this alone is not enough: The draconian blasphemy laws have to be abolished! The changes are "welcome, but inadequate", said Tali Muhammed Khan, Chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. In fact, by limiting the changes to procedural ones, without touching the contens of the law itself, the National Assembly has for example in passing confirmed the mandatory death penalty.

The blasphemy laws of Pakistan are a relic of the 1860 British colonial criminal law. In 1986, they were "Islamizised" and brought into line with Sharia by Pakistan's military ruler General Zia-ul Haq. In1991, elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made death penalty mandatory. Abuse of the laws became rampant after Zia-ul Haq's Islamization of the laws: while there had been only 7 cases between 1927 and 1986, the number of cases between 1986 and today increased to more than 4000!

President General Musharaff criticised the draconian blasphemy laws several times in public speeches, but did not decisively press for changes. In May 2000, when fundamentalists launched fierce demonstrations against his liberal vision of Islam, he even declared that any plan to change the blasphemy laws was abandonned. But international pressure on his government mounted, when the blasphemy case against the rationalist Dr. Younus Shaikh unleashed a wave of international protest. Dr. Shaikh, who was sentenced to death and kept for more than two years in solitary confinement in a small death cell in Ravalpindi jail, was finally acquitted. In December 2003, he spoke in the annual meeting of the UN commission on Human Rights in Geneva about his case and the situation in Pakistan.

The fight against the blasphemy law has to continue. They violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has been signed by Pakistan, and have to be abolished. The bloody dagger has to be wrested from the hands of the fundamentalists. (For the full text of Pakistan's Blasphemy laws, please click here.)

Copyright © 2004 Rationalist International.
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President: Sanal Edamaruku
Honorary Associates
Dr. Pieter Admiraal (The Netherlands), Prof. Mike Archer (Australia), Katsuaki Asai (Japan), Sir Hermann Bondi (UK), Prof. Colin Blakemore (UK), Prof. Vern Bullough (USA), Dr. Bill Cooke (New Zealand), Dr. Helena Cronin (UK), Prof. Richard Dawkins (UK), Joseph Edamaruku (India), Jan Loeb Eisler (USA), Prof. Antony Flew (UK), Tom Flynn (USA), Jim Herrick (UK), Christopher Hitchens (USA), Ellen Johnson (USA), Prof. Paul Kurtz (USA), Lavanam (India), Dr. Richard Leakey (Kenya), Iain Middleton (New Zealand), Dr. Henry Morgentaler (Canada), Dr. Taslima Nasreen (Bangladesh), Steinar Nilsen (Norway), Prof. Jean-Claude Pecker (France), James Randi (USA), Prof. Ajoy Roy (Bangladesh), Dr. G N Jyoti Shankar (deceased, USA), Barbara Smoker (UK), Prof. Rob Tielman (The Netherlands), David Tribe (Australia), K Veeramani (India), Barry Williams (Australia), Prof. Richard Wiseman (UK) and Prof. Lewis Wolpert (UK).