ISLAMABAD: A UN special representative has expressed serious reservations about Pakistan's blasphemy law, weak prosecution and a parallel justice system functioning under the Federal Shariah Court.
Ms Gabriela Knaul, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, said Pakistani judges were often pressured to convict people accused under the controversial blasphemy law that calls for the death sentence for anyone insulting Islam.
Ms Knaul, who was on an 11-day visit to Pakistan to examine the country's judicial system, told a news conference yesterday that lawyers too were reluctant to defend clients accused under the blasphemy law because of threats.
"I am especially concerned regarding cases brought under the so-called blasphemy law as it was reported to me that judges have been coerced to decide against the accused even without supporting evidence," she said.
"They are afraid of reprisals by local communities because of their interpretation of the law. Lawyers representing people accused of blasphemy are often targeted and unable to represent their clients", she said. Ms Knaul said it was a matter of concern that the blasphemy law was being misused to target women and deprive them of fundamental rights. The controversial blasphemy law includes the death penalty for anyone insulting Islam, the Quran or Prophet Muhammad.
Rights groups have said that the law has often been misused to settle personal scores or family feuds against members of Pakistan's minority communities, especially Christians. Last year, the Punjab Governor, Mr Salmaan Taseer and the Minority Affairs Minister, Mr Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, were assassinated after they spoke out against the blasphemy law.
Ms Knaul said she was concerned that there were currently no women in Pakistan's Supreme Court and only two women in High Courts.
"Many stages of the justice system, starting with filing a case with police, to accessing lawyers and appearing and testifying before courts are gender-biased and therefore impede the full functioning of justice for women," she said.
While urging the government to provide better security to judges and lawyers, Ms Knaul said judges, prosecutors and lawyers working on cases related to terrorism and organised crime are often the target of threats and attacks.
Expressing concern at the Federal Shariah Court, Knaul said: "I believe that the existence of two superior courts in the Constitution is problematic and leaves space for interpretations".
Ms Knaul lauded the Supreme Court for taking up cases related to human rights abuses, such as the issue of "missing persons" or those detained without charge by security agencies, but called for clear criteria guiding the use of suo moto powers.
"I am concerned by the lack of clear criteria guiding the use of suo moto, which can undermine its own nature and may jeopardise other pending cases from being timely considered by the Supreme Court," she said.
Ms Knaul released a preliminary report at the conclusion of her visit to Pakistan.
She was the first mandate holder of a Special Procedure of the Human Rights Council to undertake an official mission to Pakistan after 13 years.
She will present her final report at a session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.