Pakistan is changing under Prime Minister Imran Khan

EU parliamentarians are calling for reforms from Pakistan

Despite the harsh provisions of its blasphemy law, Pakistan has not yet executed anyone for blasphemy or condemnation of the Koran. But the charges, litigation and detention conditions in these cases defy any rule of law; many convicts wait years, if not decades, for their appeals process. Not to mention the much more frequent lynchings and social bullying for alleged blasphemy compared to court judgments.

Because of these conditions, but also because of the "alarming increase in accusations of blasphemy inside and outside social networks in the past year, which are often directed against human rights activists, journalists, artists and marginalized groups", the MEPs of the European Parliament became active at the end of April . In their most recent resolution on Pakistan, they call on Pakistan, among other things, to abolish the death penalty and life imprisonment in its blasphemy law. They also call on the EU Commission and the EU's foreign policy arm to review and suspend the trade preferences (GSP +) granted to Pakistan since 2014.

MEP Emmanuel Maurel: "EU is not just a supermarket"

"The EU stands for values ​​and principles"

The parliamentary resolution was initiated by the fate of Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel. The Christian couple were arrested in 2013 for alleged blasphemy. In April 2014, both were sentenced to death under Pakistan's blasphemy laws. The appointment process has not started to this day. In their resolution, the parliamentarians demand the immediate release of the accused and the annulment of the death sentence.

The EU has made respect for human rights and the right to freedom of expression a fundamental part of its foreign policy, said Emmanuel Maurel, member of the Left Party in the EU Parliament, in the resolution. The GSP + program provides the possibility to suspend trade preferences in the event of violations of international conventions on human rights, including freedom of religion and freedom of expression, Maurel told DW. "One can hope that this pressure will change Pakistani politics." The EU has no right to promote trade with a country that continues to condemn its citizens to death for blasphemy. "The EU stands for values ​​and principles, it is not just a supermarket."

Forced conversions of young Pakistani women have increased in the pandemic

"Partnership with Pakistan is not a one-way street"

Reinhard Bütikofer from the Group of the Greens in the European Parliament sees it similarly.

The resolution is a "clear political signal" that the partnership at GSP + is not a one-way street. "It is based on the requirement that the partner countries are committed to criteria such as human rights, transparency and accountability," Bütikofer said in an interview with DW.

The parliamentarians definitely wanted a partnership with Pakistan. "But it must not function as a one-way street. It is not possible for one side to take advantage of the other without observing the fundamental values ​​of this partnership in return."

The demand by the EU Parliament to suspend Pakistan's preferential treatment in trade with the EU is a good step, says Fréderic Grare, South Asia expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank. GSP + is intended to encourage weaker countries to reform. "But they are largely absent in Pakistan." This is why the move comes at the right time and is well understood in Pakistan, Grare said in an interview with DW. "The country is economically weak. It can hardly afford serious economic differences with its partners."

A condemned "blasphemer" is "protected" from fanatics in his prison in Multan

Role of Prime Minister Imran Khan

Nonetheless, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan declared in early May that his country's blasphemy law would remain in place. GSP + has no relation to religious issues, he said, according to regional media. In mid-April Khan announced that he would work with "other" politicians from the Islamic world for a blasphemy law in Europe. If European politicians punish "negative comments" about the Holocaust, they should do the same with insults to the Islamic prophet Mohammed, he said on Twitter.

Imran Khan faces a number of problems, says South Asia expert Christian Wagner from the Berlin Science and Politics Foundation (SWP). "In addition to the ongoing economic crisis, the corona pandemic has now come. In addition, there have been rallies by the Islamists that have been going on for months.

Wagner suspects that the demand for a blasphemy law in Europe is directed primarily at the Pakistani public. Khan started in 2018 with the promise to establish an Islamic welfare state. "He did not succeed in doing this because of the weak economic situation in Pakistan. In this respect, this appeal is supposed to calm the demonstrators."

If the EU actually lifts or suspends trade preferences for Pakistan, it would be a serious setback for the country, says Wagner. "The Pakistani textile industry in particular exports large parts of its production to Europe and is urgently dependent on the income from these exports." The government will not allow this privilege to come to an end. "In this respect, the EU has a powerful lever in hand."

Protest against Macron for "Islamophobia" in Karachi in October 2020

Angry about anti-French campaign

In addition to the ongoing imprisonment of Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, the anti-French mass protests that have been ongoing since last autumn also played a role for the EU Parliament. Not only in Pakistan but also in other Islamic countries, statements by French President Macron on freedom of expression last autumn, which also included the showing of Mohammed cartoons, had led to anti-French protests. In Pakistan, the protests were led by the fundamentalist Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) movement. At their pressure, the parliament in Islamabad took a motion on the agenda a few days before the resolution of the EU parliament, according to which the French ambassador in Islamabad should be expelled. The debate was then adjourned indefinitely. Prime Minister Khan apparently came through with the argument that such a measure would do far more harm to Pakistan than France.

"We noted with some dismay that there was a very strong and, I must say, completely unjustified, mass mobilization against France in Pakistan. We do not appreciate that," Reinhard Bütikofer made clear. His parliamentary colleague Emmanuel Maurel seconded: "As a Frenchman, I would have liked a more decisive answer from the Pakistani Prime Minister." The ban on TLP as a terrorist organization announced by the Pakistani government was not a response to the anti-French campaign. "For its part, Europe must be very determined and consider targeted sanctions against the leaders of these hideous rallies," demands Maurel.

Flags of the EU countries in front of the building of the European Parliament in Strasbourg

Difficult way forward

How can it go on now? Pakistan is a difficult partner, says Fréderic Grare. The EU has long sought good relations with the Southeast Asian country. "So far, however, the results have been modest. It seems that the two sides are now moving away from each other. But no dictation should be imposed on Pakistan."

After all, there are also attempts in Pakistan to push back extremist forces, says Christian Wagner. "The EU could support the moderate forces in the country. There are already a number of corresponding programs. However, their implementation is difficult."

The European Union is always open to talks, says Emmanuel Maurel. He believes that a constructive dialogue with Pakistan is possible. "But this first requires a revision of the anti-blasphemy law and a clear condemnation of violence and discrimination against religious minorities by the Pakistani government."