Islamabad - Minister for Human Rights Dr Shireen Mazari has said that the PTI government has discontinued the policy of previous governments not to accept mercy petitions of death-row convicts and merit-based quicker decisions would be done on such cases.

In an exclusive interview with The Nation, the minister said there was no government policy that no mercy petition would be accepted. Each case would be decided on its merit and decisions would be taken quicker with less red-tapism, she added.

“We have changed the whole procedure of the mercy petitions,” she said adding previous governments had made a policy decision that they would not accept any mercy petition. She said they were not going to follow the previous governments’ “inhumane position”.

She explained earlier the procedure to send the mercy petition to President was very much lengthy. “Our ministry has got approval from the cabinet to streamline the mercy petitions…now all cases would not go through mini and lengthy steps and there just will be three or four steps. Finally, a committee at the federal level, headed by human rights minister, will finally make a decision and send it to the President via the Prime Minister’s Office to accept or reject the mercy petitions,” she said.

While sitting at her spacious office situated on Constitution Avenue, Dr Mazari mentioned a number of steps that her government and the ministry had taken to address the human rights issues in Pakistan and improve the lives of vulnerable segments of society, the unprivileged, the trans people, the women and the children.

Minister says PTI govt has discontinued previous govts’ policy of not accepting mercy appeals of convicts

The minister said that she was personally dealing with human rights in the context of Indian Occupied Jammu & Kashmir. She said that she had written letters to different international human rights organizations including the UN bodies on the human rights abuses in the occupied territory.

“I have also written a letter to United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) for creating a humanitarian corridor for IOJK so that humanitarian aid goes into Kashmir.”

“The first big difference with the PTI government coming to power has been the focus on human rights. Previously, people did not know that this ministry existed, said the minister who is a senior and an old member of the ruling party.

She said that their approach to human rights was different and they talked about rights-based approach. She stressed that Prime Minister Imran Khan was always being committed to giving people their rights.

“We have the PM’s strong support on all initiatives that we have taken.”

She also pointed out that when she came into the ministry, she discovered that even where the laws existed to protect the people and gave them their rights, they were not being enforced properly.

Dr Mazari, an academic, a writer and an expert on defence and security matters, said that Pakistan had progressive laws on human rights, for example the transgender law. Pakistan is one of the few countries that actually has a law giving rights to trans people. “We have started operationalizing that law in fact now. We just we finished police sensitization programme for police from Punjab and Islamabad Capital Territory to tell them about transgender law and problems that arise.”

Talking about the other initiatives of PTI government, she said that Ministry of Human Rights also immediately took up issue of giving women their inheritance rights which were guaranteed under a law but women awere not aware of it.

“We got statement (in this connection) from head of Council of Islamic Ideology Qibal Ayaz, and advertised the message on TV channels. We also advertised the fact that our helpline 1099 is accessible for women.”  The ministry provides free legal assistance to those women who cannot afford a lawyer, she added.

The minister said that her ministry together with the law ministry had decided to formalize the legal aid structure. A draft bill on legal aid structure is about to become a law.

After the sexual abuse and killing incident of little girl Zainab in district Kasur of Punjab, child abuse had become a big issue, the minister said adding that Ministry of Human rights had started an awareness campaign on child abuse and a campaign especially in Islamabad has been triggered.  We go to schools in different parts of Islamabad where parents are also invited and we talks to parents, teachers and children on the issue.

Dr Mazari said that the government was now enforcing the ICT Child Protection Act and a commission was going to be formed. A permanent child protection centre with overnight facilities including the presence of a psychologist is also being made, she said.

“We have done two awareness programmes with Sindh Judicial Academy on child abuse and transgender rights,” she said and added: “So there are a lot of awareness programmes that we are doing.”

She further said that Ministry of Human Rights with the help of UNDP and the Office of Commissioner of Human Rights in Geneva has started a survey to collect data on human right. There is no data base on human rights in Pakistani. With the UNDP, we have also started child labour survey after 23 years and it would be complete by June 2020.

After 1996 there was fund that was created through law –Women in Detention and Distress Fund—but it was not being operationalized since then. The ministry is now operationalizing this fund which offers financial help to women not just in prisons but also women in distress, if there were women who have been abandoned by their husbands, and who are victims of violence, she informed.

The PTI government has observed that there were laws that should been formulated but have not been formulated and we are trying to fill those gaps. The draft bills including Zainab Alert Bill to prevent child abuse and the People’s Disabilities Bill are in the parliament and would become laws soon.

Dr Mazari said that her ministry had drafted a bill to provide relief to senior citizens and it would be tabled in the National Assembly. Another bill to protect rights of domestic workers is also being finalized, she said.

Responding to a question about the protection of rights of minorities in Pakistan, the federal minister said that Pakistan was one of the few countries that allowed its non-Muslim citizens their own personal laws. “We have the Hindu Marriage Act and finally, a draft has been done on Christian marriage and divorce law,” she added.

About the recent deaths of citizens in police custody, Dr Mazari informed that a proposed draft on Anti-Torture Bill was also nearing completion and would be tabled in the parliament. “Custodial death are becoming a big problem because it was the decades of bad practices and we have to end that but it takes a long time. Along with laws to make it illegal, you need to have police reforms,” she. Our programme of sensitization of police on child abuse and transgender becomes very important, the minister further said.

The minister went on to say that her government had also drafted a bill criminalizing the enforced disappearances which is with the Law Ministry. At the moment, we are talking to all the stakeholders including various intelligence and law enforcement agencies to get their approval so that the bill can finally be moved forward.

She said that the Ministry of Human Rights Ministry had now got first draft ready for the Journalist Protection Bill after consultations with journalists’ representative bodies and senior journalists 

“We are also now making a programme for human rights and business because this is now accepted within the international community that business also has a human right dimension,” said the minister. She said that they were preparing an action plan for business and human rights.

About some reported cases of forced conversion of Hindu girls in Sindh, she said that forced conversions was a big issue and there was already a committee on hate speech, forced conversions, the government had formed and one of the committees dealing with these issues was headed secretary of the Ministry Of Human Rights.

She said the forced conversions were not something that was acceptable and PM also took a strong position on it.

About a question why were honour killings cases still happening despite a law passed by the parliament to prevent this practice after the honour killing of social media celebrity Ms Qandeel Baloch, the federal minister said law was there, and the courts and police must enforce the law.  One example of law being enforced is the Baloch case. ”It is an offence where the state must enforce the law if even a family pardons the murders, and see that they are punished.”

About a decision of PTI’s government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa ordering the school girls to cover up their faces with abaya, chader or gown to prevent themselves sexual harassment, she said that the local government issued an order that was immediately taken back because it was wrong. “You cannot force women especially young girls to wear burqas.” On reports of distribution of burqas among schools girls by a local PTI in the province, she said that it was an individual act done by some local councilor and she though that action was being taken on this.

On human rights situation in Balochistan, she said that to a larger extent, enforced disappearances have come down there. “Till all issue are resolved, we will not be satisfied, so we feel that there is room for improvement still in the province,” she said.