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ASIA BIBI: Lord Alton asks questions that cannot be answered, but we must answer them

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Picture taken after Wilson Chowdhry's meeting with Lord Alton to discuss our concerns.

ASIA BIBI -  HOUSE OF LORDS UK- What makes a country safe for a persecuted Christian falsely accused of blasphemy? Governments must seek the answers that will improve prospects for vulnerable people.
Countries must answer the questions that they do not want to hear about whether they are a safe destination for Asia Bibi and others like her.


On 20 November 2018 two questions were asked by Lord Alton of Liverpool about Asia Bibi that were left unanswered, by Baroness Williams, Minister of The Home Office, citing safety and security concerns for her family. 

British Pakistani Christian Association Chairman Wilson Chowdhry met in the morning with Lord Alton to discuss these same concerns and is satisfied that the right questions are being raised and that the UK will be numbered among those who offer asylum. Mr Chowdhry said: 

"This morning I raised concerns with Lord Alton and am impressed by his tenacity and am satisfied that the government will be challenged to take the right course of action.

"I was also heartened to see the comments from the House of Lords who touched on virtually every issue that is problematic for Asia Bibi's case. I wonder how has this simple woman elicited such a predicament for the leaders of the World by simply drinking water from a well?
 
Mr Chowdhry continued:

"When I met with Lord Ahmad last Friday the salient point that I came away with is that British officials are cooperating with other diplomatic partners to find a safe country for Asia. Ostensibly this then means that there are some countries that are not safe for a woman in her situation.

"The MPs and Elected officials in every potential country of asylum must keep pressing until they find every point of concern. 


"Now is a time for global introspection. We must seek answers and find out why some countries are safe and others are not deemed as such."  


Lord Alton inquired about two items: (1) safe passage and resettlement of, and (2) granting of asylum to Asia Bibi and her family.  

The Minister of the Home Office replied:

"We welcome the ongoing assurances that the Government of Pakistan have given on keeping her and her family safe."

Then she saying "as a matter of policy" and because of their "duty of confidentiality", they "do not comment on individual cases" and suggested that doing so could "put individuals and their family members in danger."

Wilson Chowdhry said:

"The idea that the security detail is secure is wishful thinking. Three high profile individuals with ironclad security details were struck-down by their body guards in Pakistan and now with the Threat Alert issued by the Punjab Police Inspector General about the search and destroy mission, which has localised Asia Bibi, the risk is even greater." 

Lord Alton questioning the logic of the Government's muteness further queried:

"Is it not passing strange that while other Governments, 200 parliamentarians and the leader writers of national newspapers have all spoken powerfully and clearly calling for asylum to be granted to Asia Bibi, we take Trappist vows of silence?" 

Casting doubt on her assurances from Pakistan that they would keep her safe, and in reference to reports that the failure to offer asylum was because of "fear of reprisals"  He continued:

"Does not their refusal to be dictated to by lynch mobs while we fail to offer asylum because of what Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, says is a fear of reprisals, undermine our belief in justice, human rights, the rule of law and religious freedom, and endanger us falling foul of, and succumbing, to blackmail?"

Baroness Wiliams offering nothing on these matters said:

"I know the noble Lord will understand that I cannot comment on most of the points that he has made."
 
The reply of the Noble Lords, was short but telling as they collectively groaned:

"Oh."

Baroness Williams:

"I cannot, my Lords. Our primary concern is the safety and security of Asia Bibi and her family, and we want to see a swift resolution of the situation. A number of countries are in discussion about providing a safe destination once the legal process is complete. Therefore, it would not be right to comment further at this stage..."


Despite her efforts to close the subject the Noble Lords continued with further questions about the blasphemy laws, expanded concerns for other minorities in Pakistan, concerns of community backlash and of danger to the high commission staff. The remainder of the discussion is posted below for your convenience with the appropriate link to the Hansard site.


Wilson Chowdhry said:

"I intend to approach Australia with as much effort and pursue with positive expectation that they will demonstrate their leadership in human rights and compassion for Asia's plight."

"There can be no bystanders; everyone must offer asylum. We must ask ourselves the difficult questions which tell us who we are. No country that says they believe in democratic values can leave Asia Bibi at their gates.

"Just as she has been hidden all these years in the hand of God, let her now be hidden in the arms of His world."



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The dialogue found in the Hansard if found below for your convenience. To read from the Hansard site (click here):
 

Lord Alton of Liverpool


To ask Her Majesty’s Government what response they have made to requests to assist in the (1) safe passage and resettlement of, and (2) granting of asylum to Asia Bibi and her family.

 

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con)


My Lords, the release of Asia Bibi will be very welcome news to her family and to all those who have campaigned for her freedom. We welcome the ongoing assurances that the Government of Pakistan have given on keeping her and her family safe. As a matter of policy, and in accordance with our duty of confidentiality, the Government do not comment on individual cases. Departing from this policy may put individuals and their family members in danger.

 

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)


My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is it not passing strange that while other Governments, 200 parliamentarians and the leader writers of national newspapers have all spoken powerfully and clearly calling for asylum to be granted to Asia Bibi, we take Trappist vows of silence? Recalling that Shahbaz Bhatti, who was the Minister for Minorities, and Salmaan Taseer, who was the Muslim governor of Punjab, were murdered for insisting on the innocence of Asia Bibi, does the Minister share my huge admiration for Pakistan’s Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar and Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, both of whom I met recently in Islamabad, who courageously and with great integrity acquitted and exonerated Asia Bibi, who was wrongfully sentenced to death and incarcerated for nine years? Does not their refusal to be dictated to by lynch mobs while we fail to offer asylum because of what Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, says is a fear of reprisals, undermine our belief in justice, human rights, the rule of law and religious freedom, and endanger us falling foul of, and succumbing, to blackmail?

Baroness Williams of Trafford


I know the noble Lord will understand that I cannot comment on most of the points that he has made.

 

Noble Lords


Oh.

 

Baroness Williams of Trafford


I cannot, my Lords. Our primary concern is the safety and security of Asia Bibi and her family, and we want to see a swift resolution of the situation. A number of countries are in discussion about providing a safe destination once the legal process is complete. Therefore, it would not be right to comment further at this stage. The noble Lord also talked about religious freedom. I welcome the opportunity to say that we continue to urge all countries to guarantee the rights of all citizens, particularly the most vulnerable, in accordance with international standards.

 

Lord Anderson of Swansea (Lab)


Does not the hesitation of the Government in this sense, either because of a fear of community backlash or because of perceived dangers to our high commission staff, speak volumes about their human rights commitment? Surely as far as Pakistan is concerned, the deal reached with the extremists by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, tells us something about his human rights credentials and those of the Government of Pakistan.
 

Baroness Williams of Trafford


Noble Lords can draw their own conclusions in this situation, but our prime concern is the safety and security of Asia Bibi and her family and we want a swift resolution of the situation. As I said earlier, I do not want to comment further because I do not want any individual or their family members to be put in danger.

 

The Lord Bishop of St Albans


My Lords, the Minister is in a very difficult position because the Government feel unable to speak. However, it is not just Christians who are suffering from these blasphemy laws but other groups of Muslims and other religious minorities. What efforts are Her Majesty’s Government making to put pressure on the Pakistani Government to ensure that these blasphemy laws do not continue unjustly to affect these communities?

 

Baroness Williams of Trafford


My Lords, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, we continue to urge all countries to guarantee the rights of all citizens in accordance with international standards. Our current position on minorities in Pakistan is set out in the Home Office country policy and the information note that we published, Pakistan: Christians and Christian Converts, which provides background, but it is important that each case involving asylum is considered on its individual facts and merits.

Lord Beith (LD)

My Lords, while there may be things that the Government can do or say behind the scenes, and we hope they are doing so, surely the Minister is not trying to cast doubt on the fact that if someone arrived directly from Pakistan into this country who had been through the experiences that Asia Bibi has been through and faced the threat that she now faces, they would have an irrefutable claim for asylum under international law.


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Baroness Williams of Trafford


I am not trying to cast doubt on anything. Obviously I will not talk about individual cases. Anyone who arrives in this country and seeks asylum is dealt with on a case-by-case basis. I make the general point that this country has been generous over decades and indeed centuries to people coming here to seek our asylum and take refuge. I do not think the attitude of this country towards people who need our refuge should be in any doubt.


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Baroness Warsi (Con)


My Lords—


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Baroness Cox (CB)


My Lords—


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Lord Taylor of Holbeach (Con)


My Lords, the Conservatives have not had a chance to ask a question on this subject so I think it is their turn.


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Baroness Warsi


My Lords, I fully endorse the comments of the right reverend Prelate. I believe that it is not just time for those blasphemy laws not to be operated in a harsh way, it is time for those laws to be brought to an end. There have been press reports that Asia Bibi, if granted asylum in the United Kingdom, would potentially not be safe from some communities here. I wish to give my noble friend and this House full confidence. As someone who is deeply connected to British Muslim communities, I assure her that they are fully supportive of any asylum claim that Asia Bibi may have and that our country may afford her, and that she would be supported as she would be by all other communities in this country.


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Baroness Williams of Trafford


I thank my noble friend for her point on the various differing media reports on what this country might or might not do. Clearly every asylum claim is treated on its own merits. As I say, and I am sure my noble friend will attest to this, we have a long and proud tradition of granting asylum in this country to those who need it.
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