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The European Union (EU) has reportedly conveyed to Islamabad that renewal of Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) plus facility and future financial assistance in the pipeline will be linked to positive outcome on Asia Bibi, a Christian woman facing death in a blasphemy case, well informed sources in Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Business Recorder.

The EU's message has been conveyed by the European Commission official, Jan Figel, special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU during his recent visit to Islamabad when he met senior government officials. This issue was also discussed at a meeting on GSP plus presided over by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on January 19, 2018.

EU is the main destination for Pakistan's exports. The EU's share has increased significantly between 2011 and 2016 from 25.7 per cent to 37.1 per cent. In terms of value, Pakistan's total exports to the EU increased by 53.6 per cent, from Euro 4.019 billion in 2011 to Euro 6.173 billion in 2016.

The sources said, Jan Figel made it clear that his visit was focussed on a one point agenda ie to raise the case of Asia Bibi who has been awarded death sentence in a blasphemy case, by a Sheikhupura court, later upheld by Lahore High Court (LHC) and now pending before the Supreme Court.

The European Commission official emphasized that the case of Asia Bibi is very important to the EU member states, particularly Italy, who felt that the Supreme Court was intentionally delaying its adjudication in order to appease a certain section of the society.

"EU is providing special trade concessions to Pakistan in the form of GSP plus facility in view of Pakistan's difficult economic and security situation. But this facility is linked to Pakistan making progress on human rights issues and the case of Asia Bibi figures too prominently in this context," the sources quoted Jan Fiegel as saying.

He explained that the case for renewal of Pakistan's GSP plus status would come before the EU member states during the current month and that a decision on it will be made in light of a report to be submitted by the European Commission on the state of human rights and religious freedom in Pakistan. He urged the Government of Pakistan to take steps to address the EU concerns on Asia Bibi and pave way for a positive outcome on the GSP status.

European Commission special envoy Jan Fiegel for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU, stubbornly and unrelentingly emphasized the point that " status quo in Asia Bibi case amounted to denial of justice" and would not be acceptable to the EU member states.

His emphatically and unambiguously stated that this matter would weigh heavily on the minds of those who would decide Pakistan's case for renewal of GSP plus status, the sources maintained.

Jan Fiegel's remarks were "help us in Asia Bibi case to get help on GSP plus and other financial incentives that are in the pipeline". The European Commission(EC) in its Mid -Term Evaluation of the EU's GSP plus final interim report prepared by its consultants Development Solutions says that political rights and civil liberties remain relatively restricted in Pakistan. Between 2011 and 2017, Pakistan's score on both Freedom House indicators has remained the same 4 out of 7 on political rights and 5 out of 7 on civil liberties. These scores indicate some deficiencies in the effective protection of all political rights and civil liberties.

According to the report Democracy Index places Pakistan amongst the "hybrid regimes" as 111th out of 167 countries. The label "hybrid regime" indicates that there remain threats to a country's democracy that could take the form of low political participation, pressure on political opponents, corruption and pressure on the media. Pakistan has made significant progress since 2006, when a score of 3.92 placed the country amongst the "authoritarian regimes". However, in recent years Pakistan's score on the Democracy Index has deteriorated significantly.

There have also been reports of restricted civil liberties, in particular regarding the freedom of expression. There have been numerous instances pointing towards violation of freedom of expression and the Government's insufficient efforts to uphold and protect this fundamental freedom. There have been attacks on the media, news outlets and journalists reportedly aimed at impeding critical reporting.

There are limits to civil liberties, such as the right to privacy, the freedom of expression and religion, the right to a fair trial and the freedom of movement, the report concluded.

On January 19, 2018, released European Commission report (2016-17) on Pakistan's compliance with 27 UN conventions where Pakistan is required to be compliant for grant of GSP+ status. Lack of compliance is noted on account of UN Conventions for Discrimination against Women and Convention on Climate Change. Concerns have also been noted on extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, freedom of expression etc.

According to report in early 2017, the Pakistani Parliament adopted the 23rd constitutional amendment, which extends the jurisdiction for special military tribunals to civilians in terrorism-related cases until January 2019. The constitutional amendment introduced certain safeguards, including the right to be informed about the charges within 24 hours and the right to choose a defence lawyer, but observers find that these do not go far enough to assuage serious concerns about the right to a fair trial for the defendants. Proceedings still take place in secrecy, there are no reasoned judgements and the right of appeal is still restricted. The Human Rights Committee has recommended reviewing legislation relating to military courts with a view to abrogating their jurisdiction over civilians and the authority to impose the death penalty; and to reform the military courts by bringing their proceedings into full conformity with the Covenant.

Enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings remain a grave concern and there has been an increase in the number of cases reported by human rights organisations in the past two years.

The government has not taken effective action to address the widespread use of torture. The application of the death penalty and executions remain a grave concern while a review of the crimes carrying the death penalty would be a welcome first step in the right direction.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2018

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