UK Taxpayers Funded Pakistani Death Courts As They Handed Down "Blasphemy Law" Sentences

New details from a secretive UK aid program reveal controversial Pakistani death sentence courts have been funded by the UK government for the past few years, even while Christians languished on death row as a result of the country's notorious "blasphemy laws". And while the program began as a "counter terrorism" initiative with a British ally, it's come under increased scrutiny after a Pakistani Christian woman was recently acquitted following 8 years on death row for "blasphemy charges". The Guardian reports:

British taxpayers are funding prosecutions in Pakistan that have led to dozens of death sentences, according to newly disclosed details of a secretive UK aid programme.

The documents reveal that the Foreign Office is supporting specialist civilian courts that prosecute terrorist suspects in what the UK government’s global security strategy calls a “rule of law” programme in Pakistan.

Pakistan Islamist parties organized mass protests in favor of the death penalty for a woman accused of violating Islamic protocol. via Getty/AFP

Except the courts not only operate in a highly conservative Islamic society which considers the death penalty for things like "blasphemy" and possibly "anti-Islamic" activity like converting to Christianity (as in the case with the 8-year imprisoned Christian woman Asia Bibi), but have very likely killed innocent people considering how many death sentence cases have been overturned on appeal.

And just days ago another Pakistani court sentenced two Christian brothers to state execution for posting material deemed "offensive to Islam" on their personal website. The brothers were sentenced to death by hanging on December 13.

One study cited in The Guardian found the following shocking figures related to death row cases:

Analysis by Reprieve and the Islamabad-based Foundation for Fundamental Rights of nearly 300 reported Pakistan supreme court judgments handed down between 2010 and 2017 found that death sentences were overturned in 77% of cases. From 2015 to the end of 2017, this increased to 81%.

The program was raised in the House of Commons on Tuesday, with shadow foreign minister Helen Goodman issuing a formal request for a human rights risk assessment with the government's response, The Guardian noted, redacted on “security grounds”.

But what has been revealed is that UK government has funded Pakistan death sentence courts since 2016, spending £10.39m on the Pakistan program, most of it in the from of the overseas aid budget. During that time Pakistan courts have handed down 59 death sentences — some of them deeply controversial, and often having nothing to do with terrorism.  

For example humanitarian groups say Pakistan hands down death sentences for crimes such as kidnapping, though international law bans the possibility of anything but murder cases being tried as capital offenses. In the case of 53-year old Asia Bibi, she was convicted in a capital punishment case in 2010 "over allegations she made derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim," according to Reuters.

Asia Bibi remains in protective custody awaiting a supreme court review of her acquittal, via AFP.

UK funding is said to focus on "terror courts" meeting "recognized standards"  which as documents describe of one aspect to this project: the “counter terrorism associated prosecutorial reforms initiative” (Capri) “aims to increase Pakistan’s civilian capacity to investigate, detain, prosecute and try terrorists in line with international standards and human rights norms”.

But human rights activists cited in The Guardian report point out that Pakistan formally defines terrorism as any crime or threat designed to create a “sense of fear or insecurity in society”This means people are often caught in the anti-terror dragnet who in reality have nothing to do with terrorism. This further takes place in a country where it's been proven "the rates of wrongful conviction are alarmingly high".

Meanwhile the UK Foreign Office issued a statement in response to allegations it's essentially propping up corrupt trigger happy death courts in central Asia: “Our programmes in Pakistan have supported the reform of the criminal justice system and we are confident it has been delivered in a way that is consistent with our opposition to the death penalty." The Foreign Office statement further claimed to have "robust measures in place to protect the human rights of beneficiaries."

However, we doubt any inmates currently imprisoned under Pakistan's well-known "blasphemy laws" thinks the UK is actually looking out for human rights while funding the death courts.