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Pakistan: Sindh Provincial Assembly Passes New Law Prohibiting Forced Religious Conversion

(Dec. 22, 2016) On November 24, 2016, the provincial assembly of Pakistan’s Sindh Province passed a new law called the Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Act, 2015, which prohibits forced religious conversions.  (Hufsa Chaudhry & Imtiaz Mugheri, Sindh Assembly Adopts Bill Against Forced Religious Conversions, DAWN (Nov. 24, 2016).) The private bill was proposed in December 2015 by Nand Kumar Goklani, a member of the provincial assembly of Sindh who belongs to the minority Hindu community and is of the Pakistan Muslim League-Functional political party.  (Shereena Qazi, Pakistan’s Sindh Province Outlaws Forced Conversions, AL JAZEERA (Nov. 25, 2016).)

This comes on the heels of the same provincial assembly passing a law establishing a Sindh Minorities Rights Commission “aimed to provide a platform to examine the grievances of minority communities, suggest mechanisms for accelerating the pace of their socioeconomic development, and promote and protect their identities at the provincial level.”  (Barry Lerner, Pakistan: Sindh Provincial Assembly Passes Law to Establish Commission for Protection of Minority Rights, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR Monitor (Dec. 19, 2016).)

Features of the Bill

Chapter III of the bill, entitled “Age of Conversion,” prohibits children from converting to a different religion until while they are minors.   Section 4(1) states “[n]o person shall be deemed to have changed their religion until they attain the age of majority,” which is 18 years of age.  (The Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill, 2015 (Sindh), § 4(1), OPEN PARLIAMENT (scroll down page to view in window).)  Moreover, “[a]ny minor who claims to have changed their religion before attaining majority shall not be deemed to have changed their religion and no action shall be taken against him or her for any such claim or action made by the minor.”  (Id. § 4(2).)  However, these provisions do not extend to a situation where the parents or a guardian of the minor decide to change the religion of the family.  (Id. § 4(3).)

The bill defines forced conversion to mean “forcing a person to adopt another religion under duress, force, coercion or threat.”  (Id. § 5.)  The punishment that it provides for this action consists of a minimum term of imprisonment of five years and a maximum term of life imprisonment, plus a fine paid to the victim.  (Id. § 6(1).)  Persons who perform, conduct, direct, or bring about or facilitate a marriage, knowing that either or both parties are victims of forced conversion, or who are  abettors to a forced conversion, are also liable to imprisonment and a fine.  (Id. §§ 6(2) & 6(3).)

Chapter V of the bill addresses “mechanisms of complaint” against a forced conversion.   One provision stipulates that the victim of or person aggrieved by a forced conversion, any person authorized by the victim, or an informer may present a petition of complaint against it to a local court, subject to certain jurisdictional rules.  Any case of forced conversion before a court must be disposed of within 90 days.  (Id. § 7.)

Chapter VI is on “rescue, custody, and special procedures in cases of forced conversion,” and its provisions include various protections for adult and child victims.  The authorities may have a victim of a forced conversion be given temporary residence in a shelter for the duration of the trial; if the victim is a child and it is not in the his or her best interest to be with the parents or guardian, the child can be placed in temporary custody at a child protection institution during the period of the trial.  (Id. §§ 10(1)-(3).)  The bill further stipulates that the court may exercise its discretion in the interest of the victim’s security to withhold information about the location of the shelter.  (Id. § 10(4).)  According to the bill, “[a]ny person who discloses the location of the victim in contravention of the orders of the court shall be liable to penalties as contempt of court as under the Contempt of Court Act, 1976 … and any other penalties seen fit by the Court.”  (Id. § 10(5).)   In the case of an alleged forced conversion of an adult, the court allows a 21-day period for the alleged adult victim to independently consider whether or not their decision to convert to another religion was forced, before it initiates a forced conversion case.  (Id. § 11.)

Reaction to the Act

Human rights and minority rights activists and members of Pakistan’s Hindu community have come out in support and praise of the new legislation and have “urged enforcement.”  (Press Release, Zohra Yusuf, Chairperson, HRCP Praises Law on Conversions, Urges Enforcement (Nov. 30, 2016), Human Rights Commission of Pakistan website.)   According to a statement by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), “[i]n adopting Sindh Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill the Sindh Assembly has responded to an oft-voiced concern of members of religious minority communities, especially Hindus, against forced conversion, mainly of girls and young women in the province.”  (Id.)  Moreover, the statement emphasized that “[w]e hope and expect not just civil society organisations but also religious groups and parties to appreciate the legislation, because we are certain that even the latter do not have any interest in a person converting to Islam where the convert’s decision is swayed by anything other than a voluntary desire to choose the faith. (Id.)

Meanwhile, religious political parties have come out against the new legislation and have threatened to protest against the Sindh government if the law is not repealed.  In early December, a number of multi-party conferences were held to oppose the new law.  In one conference, the participants “claimed that the new law was against the teachings of Islam, the Constitution of Pakistan and the Charter of the United Nations.  After reaching a consensus, the religious parties threatened to lay siege to the Sindh Assembly if the legislature did not repeal the law in 15 days.”  (Zia Ur Rehman, Religious Parties Threaten to Lay Siege to Sindh Assembly, THE NEWS (Dec. 7, 2016); see also Faraz Israr, Call For Repeal of Forced Conversions Law, NATION (Dec. 3, 2016).)

On December 16, 2016, the Senior Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Nisar Ahmad Khuhro, issued a policy statement on behalf of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Sindh government which defended the bill as being in the spirit of the constitution and religion, but still kept the door open to review the legislation “after religious scholars objected to some of its clauses.”  (Habib Khan Ghori, Sindh Govt Decides to Review Bill on Forced Conversion, DAWN (Dec. 17, 2016); see also PPP May Revisit Bill Against Forced Conversions, EXPRESS TRIBUNE (Dec. 17, 2016).)

According to the news report, Khuhro said the bill had been sent to the governor for his assent and “whether the governor gave his assent or not, the bill in both the conditions would be reviewed and amended by the assembly.”  (Ghori, supra.)