Apostasy and asylum: escaping the clutches of religion

In countries where there are no apostasy laws, blasphemy laws are frequently used to persecute and punish apostates. Rahila Gupta reports on how the dangers of apostasy in Muslim majority countries is making British courts more open to granting asylum.

Rahila Gupta
26 May 2014
Passport photos of people with 'We have renounced religion' written across them all

In a little known case, a 22 year old woman, Esha, has been languishing in a jail in Lahore, Pakistan for the last two years.  Under the blasphemy laws, she has been accused by an erstwhile friend, with whom she had a row, of desecrating the Quran: allegedly she tore pages from the Quran and slept on them. This week I received a plea for help from her fiancé who has no money left to pay lawyers or bribe the authorities to release her. She has been kept in solitary confinement for 24 hours a day, her health is poor and after her attempted suicide, she is being sexually harassed by the warden. Given the number of people who have been killed in Pakistan, most famously Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti who campaigned against the blasphemy laws and in support of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who was accused of blasphemy, most lawyers are reluctant to take on the case. Just this month, Rashid Rehman, a Pakistani lawyer who agreed to defend an academic who was accused by hardline students of defaming Mohammed, was murdered by religious extremists. Esha's fiancee, Mo, is also being threatened by various religious parties and is unable to take weekly food supplies to her in prison. There have been around 1300 cases of blasphemy in Pakistan since 1987.

The blasphemy laws have been used to persecute minorities, like the Christians and Ahmadis in Pakistan, but also to settle personal vendettas as in the above case. Blasphemy is a capital offence and desecration of the Quran can lead to a life sentence in Pakistan. A report by the Council of Ex-Muslims in Britain, CEMB, Political and Legal Status of Apostates in Islam, published in 2013, surveys 29 countries where apostasy is punishable under the law, including Pakistan and Bangladesh where there are no apostasy laws but there is frequent use of blasphemy laws to persecute apostates. In places like Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, apostasy is punishable by death whereas in places like Morocco, Malaysia and Jordan, it is punishable by fines, flogging and deprivation of family rights, like the right to child custody. Saudi Arabia has recently declared that all atheists are terrorists.

Man holding a sign saying 'In my country people are jailed or harassed for being atheist. This photo may cost me my freedom...'

Imad Iddine Habib, the founder of the Council of Ex-Muslims of MoroccoMo is hoping that their case will attract the kind of international attention that fast-tracked Malala’s resettlement in the UK. Meanwhile, Esha is facing the prospect of a life imprisonment (50 years) and has no access to proper medication or basic amenities.  If they did find the resources to get Esha out of jail and leave the country, how easy will it be for them to seek asylum in the UK? Under the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, she should be able to argue that she has a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’. As an asylum seeker, she would have to show that the criminal law under which she was charged in Pakistan amounted to a breach of her human rights.

Demonstrators hold 'One law for all' banner

CEMB demonstratiion. Photo (c) CEMBHowever, apostates are in a more difficult position. Globally, there is inconsistent application of the Geneva Convention as far as atheists are concerned. In the US, it is argued that atheists do not have the kind of defined views and practices that would be acceptable under their asylum laws. Surprisingly, Australia has accepted atheism as grounds for asylum for those fleeing religious persecution in Afghanistan. In the UK, until January 2014, when an Afghan man was able to secure asylum on grounds of being an atheist, legal decisions seemed to be guided by whether the apostasy could be kept private. In the case of MM, an Iranian asylum seeker in 2009, the Court of Appeal ruled that a distinction must be made ‘between the ordinary discreet convert, who would be able to practice Christianity without untoward risk, and the more active convert, pastor, church leader, proselytiser or evangelist, or other convert to whom an additional risk factor might attach (eg. a woman), who would be at real risk, and found that MM fell into the former category”.

This principle had also been applied to asylum seekers who were being persecuted in their countries of origin on the grounds of their homosexuality: that lesbians and gays could be discreet about their sexuality, could therefore avoid being persecuted and so were not eligible for asylum here. This restrictive interpretation of the government’s obligations under the Geneva Convention was in clear breach of the spirit of the Convention. There is no suggestion in the wording of the Convention that belief or political opinion must be repressed. Of all the categories of immigrants who are unwelcome here and seen as an unjustifiable drain on the British economy, asylum seekers or economic migrants pretending to be refugees appear at the top of the hate list. Successive governments have used a variety of methods to restrict entry to potential refugees: at its peak in 2002 there were more than 84,000 applications for asylum; since then we have seen figures drop to approximately 23,500 in 2013.

While the Government has tried hard to deliver on Cameron’s pledge to cut immigration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands, the courts have sometimes scuppered their intentions with surprisingly radical judgements. In  a 2010 case, which involved two gay men, one from Iran and one from Cameroon, five Supreme Court justices ruled that gay and lesbian asylum  seekers should not be expected to “exercise discretion” in their home countries to avoid persecution. Clara Connolly, a human rights lawyer, has called this ‘a very enlightened judgment with far reaching effects’ which she relies on in many of her cases. The Supreme Court decided that if they had to be discreet in order to avoid persecution, then they deserved refugee status. No one can be asked by the Courts to hide something which is a core belief or part of their personality, in order to escape persecution. Lawyers had been using this ruling, unsuccessfully, to argue that apostates must not be required to be discreet about their atheism in order to avoid persecution – an argument that was at last accepted in the case of the 23 year old Afghan man.

Man holding sign saying 'I faced one year in jail because of this page, but I'm still saying I'm proud to be Atheist'

Waleed Al Husseini, founder of the Council of ex-Muslims of FranceMaryam Namazie, of CEMB, believes that it is their campaigning on the dangers of apostasy in Muslim majority countries that has made courts more open to granting asylum on this basis. CEMB has supported a number of such cases and is regularly called upon to give expert evidence. However, cases continue to be refused and the cutting back of legal aid plays a significant part in the failure of asylum applications. Nasir Irshad’s application for asylum on the grounds that he had renounced Islam and was drinking and gambling – both activities proscribed under Islam, and would therefore face a real risk of persecution in Pakistan was rejected. He had also outlined his fear that he might be denounced to the authorities by a Pakistani acquaintance, based in the UK but with connections in Pakistan, because Nasir had refused to carry out fraudulent deals on his behalf. Nasir’s appeal failed because the court did not find his rejection of Islam to be credible. The judge, having read the Country of Origin Information Report on Pakistan, stated that, ‘The evidence is such that those who convert to Christianity or other religions and Ahmadis are at risk. There is nothing which states that those who do not believe in Islam would be at risk.’ Esha's example directly contradicts this assertion. Furthermore, it is estimated that between 40-50% of blasphemy charges are levelled at Muslims.

Nasir Irshad was deported in March 2014. Let’s hope he does not join Esha in a Pakistani prison.

Editors note: Some of the names of individuals in this article have been changed for their protection

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