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The story of reconciliation and development in the genocide hit Rwanda

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Inshiya Nalawala

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The story of reconciliation and development in the genocide hit Rwanda


Global Views 360

Publication Date

July 26, 2020


Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda

Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda | Source: ITU Pictures via Flickr

The genocide and civil war had rendered hundreds of thousand of people homeless and in utter misery. If the Tutsi’s were the primary victims of genocide, the Hutu’s too suffer in the ensuing civil war when Paul Kagame led Rwandan Patriotic Front defeated the government forces and took over Rwanda.

When the genocide stopped by August 1994, the the suspected perpetrators of crime were hounded by the new government forces. Thousands of Hutus left the country and sought refuge in the neighbouring countries. The legal system of Rwanda was in shambles and the vengeance was taking precedence over the quest of justice. Over a hundred thousand suspected genocidaires were put in prison but could not be properly tried due to a strained judicial system.  

Things however started to change from the year 2000, when Paul Kagame became Rwanda’s President. The biggest challenge for him was to rebuild a society that is economically and socially stable. The socio-economic transformation of Rwanda under Kagame is an inspiring story of reconciliation based on acceptance, repentance and forgiveness, the very foundation on which the edifice of Rwanda's reconciliation is standing firmly today.

The first step towards reconciliation started in 2002 when Rwanda introduced the community-based dispute resolution mechanism, Gacaca to try the genocide related crimes. Gacaca was traditionally used in Rwanda to resolve minor disputes. In its new incarnation, the objectives included not only delivering justice, but also strengthening reconciliation, and revealing the truth about the genocide.  

In the Gacaca court the local community elected the judges who then tried the defendants  in front of members of the local community. These community members  were asked to share whatever they knewabout the the role of defendant during the genocide. Gacaca courts functioned extensively during 2005 to 2012 and processed almost two million cases in this duration.

Though Gacaca courts were criticised by many human right organisations for putting speed over fairness in trial, it undoubtedly resulted in giving the opportunity for some genocide survivors to learn what had happened to their relatives. It helped many families of survivors and perpetrators living side by side with peace and contentment in many reconciliation villages, after the ‘perpetrators’ confessed their crimes and expressed repentance.

Taking inspiration from The Truth and Reconciliation Commission” of South Africa, Rwanda established a “National Unity and Reconciliation Commission” in 1999 with an objective to reconcile and unite the Rwandan citizens. This process used four specific tools. (1) Ingandos - to bring normal activities to a standstill in order to reflect on, and find solutions to national challenges, (2) Organising reconciliation summits, (3) Creation of a leadership academy for developing a new set of grassroot leaders, and (4) Frequent exchanges and consultations at inter-community level.

All these efforts along with that of many non-governmental organisations helped to greatly heal the deep wound of sectarian violence in Rwanda. According to the report published by the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission of Rwanda in 2016, over 92% of Rwandans feel that reconciliation is happening.  

Alongside the reconciliation process, the government of Rwanda started spending on health, education and other civic infrastructure which has paid a good dividend in last two decades.

Government expenditure on healthcare facilities per person has gone up sixfold from just $21 in 1995 to $125 in 2014) which contributed to the increase in Life expectancy at birth by 32 years between 1990 and 2016 while  reducing the infant mortality by half since 2000.

The focus on the education sector resulted in almost three quarters of girls and two-thirds of boys now completing primary schooling while literacy rates of adult males and females increased to 75% and 68% respectively.

Rwanda now ranks 6th out 149 countries in the global gender gap index and a high proportion of front-line political positions, including 61% of the parliamentary seats are occupied by women. Rwandan women possess the right to inherit property and can also pass citizenship to their children.

The newfound peace, stability and reconciliation in Rwanda gave a boost to the country’s economy which saw per capita GDP growth from $200 to almost $800 between 1994 and 2017. In 2018 the GDP grew at  8.6% and the county rated the second-best place to do business in Africa.

Rwanda today is a shining example that a country with a long and painful history of violent sectarianism, can achieve great success, if it takes every section of the population along on a path of peace, unity and reconciliation.

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July 19, 2021 12:00 PM

The Blasphemy Law of Pakistan and its Implications

In Pakistan, Blasphemy results in a capital punishment in majority of cases. It is perhaps considered a crime worse than terrorism. A crucial case in point is the fact that the Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Court gave around 15 years jail term to two close aides of Hafiz Saeed—chief of the terrorist organization—Lashkar-e-Taiba—and mastermind behind 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks—where at least 150 innocent people lost their lives.

Similarly, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi—Lashkar-e-Taiba’s operation commander and another important figure involved in the 2008 Mumbai attack—was sentenced to 15 years in jail period. Not to mention—this happened amidst the international pressure on Pakistan for letting terrorists to function and roam freely within their country.

While something as violent as terrorism is dealt with lenient punishments, there are draconian laws for blasphemy in the country. Moreover, one can be accused of committing blasphemy—doesn’t matter if they did it or not—and might not even face a fair trial.

This article discusses what are the blasphemy laws and what are their implications while looking at some specific cases.

What are Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws?

What's called Blasphemy law today has its origins in the colonial era. The “offences relating to religion” were introduced by British in 1860, and were later expanded in 1927. These were sections 295 and 295-A from the Indian Penal Code. The laws were made to avoid religious disturbances, insult religious beliefs, or intentionally destroy or desecrate a place or an object of worship. Under the 295 and 295-A, the convicted were to be given a jail term from one year to ten years—with or without a fine.

Pakistan ended up inheriting these laws after the partition of India in 1947.

The laws were amended in 1982 and another clause was added which prescribed life imprisonment for desecration of the Quran intentionally. Another clause was added in 1986 to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad through imprisonment for life or death. These clauses, were added under General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime, in an order to make the laws more “pro-Islam.”

Since then, this law has often been used to persecute people from minority communities—such as the Ahmadiyas, Shias, Christians, and Hindus—they have been accused of blasphemy without much evidence.

Infamous cases and implications of blasphemy in Pakistan

One of the famous cases was of Asia Bibi, which grabbed international attention as well. Asia Noreen—known as Asia Bibi—was a Pakistani Christan and a farm laborer in Punjab province. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, was a brick laborer. A dispute with her Muslim neighbours turned into an accusation of blasphemy—leading to her arrest and imprisoned. There were a lot of protests in Pakistan, demanding death penalty for Asia Bibi.

Two politicians—Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti—who supported and tried to help Asia Bibi, were murdered. Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard named Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri in broad daylight. Qadri was tried and sentenced to death. He was executed in 2016. Mumtaz Qadri became a hero for millions and hardliners praised him as a martyr. He is regarded as a saint and a mausoleum has been built over his grave in his village near Islamabad, where even devotees come to offer prayers.

Asia Bibi was first sentenced to death by a trial court in 2010, however was later acquitted by the Supreme Court in a historic judgement of 2018. In 2019, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that she was free to leave Pakistan and was given asylum in Canada where she moved along with her family.

Although after a long struggle, Asia Bibi still got justice and was able to start a new life—unfortunately many others didn’t. Many met with Mob Justice.

In 2017, a journalism student at a Pakistani University was lynched to death by fellow students in Mardan—in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The student—Mashal Khan—was a Shia Muslim and was falsely accused of blasphemy. The mob was enraged by a rumour according to which he had promoted the Ahmadi faith on Facebook. In a similar instance, a man named Tahrir Ahmad Naseem was killed by vigilantes in July last year for blasphemy. He was a former Ahmadi, and was in Peshawar Central Jail since 2018 for claiming to be a prophet. He was shot dead inside the courtroom during trial in the Peshawar Judicial Complex.

Furthermore, in a case similar to that of Asia Bibi, a Christian couple—Shahzad and Shama Maseeh—were accused of blasphemy as well. They were then beaten and burned alive by a mob in 2014. Shama was four months pregnant. The mob, which also included a local cleric, believed that the couple had burned some pages of the Quran along with some rubbish, although the couple’s family still denies this. Five people including the cleric were sentenced to death, while the eight others were given two years imprisonment.

Last year, former Foreign and Defense Minister Khawaja Asif as well was accused of blasphemy for merely stating that “all religions are equal.”

Why is this happening?

According to data by Pakistan’s Centre for Social Justice, there have been 1549 known cases of serious blasphemy in the years 1987-2017, out of which 720 were Muslims, 516 Ahmadis, 238 Christians, 31 Hindus, and the rest 44 are unknown. 75 out of the total cases ended in the person being murdered before their trial.

There are 13 countries in the world which punish blasphemy by death penalty and Pakistan happens to be one of them. But unlike countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where they are executed judicially—as mentioned earlier—accused in Pakistan are often killed in mob violence or assassination. While Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to top in terms of the highest number of executions, most of them for sacrilege or crimes against Islam, Pakistan’s total ‘judiciary’ killings stand at zero.

The problem of this mob mentality in Pakistan, especially when it comes to religion, is actually deeply rooted in its constitution. The country’s aspiration to become a democracy as well as an Islamic state is in itself contradictory. The people want the right to freedom and expression and the hanging of a person committing blasphemy at the same time. The constitution denies criticism of Islam while claiming to allow freedom of speech and religion. The elevation of one religion over others in itself is principally undemocratic.

Another interesting point is the fact that the people supporting these ideas haven’t been aware of how things can backfire. Muhammad Din Taseer—father of Salman Taseer—supported Ilam Din, who murdered a Hindu publisher over blasphemy in 1929. An ancestor’s support for radicalism ended up in his own offspring being assassinated in the name of blasphemy.

Mental illness and blasphemy

In Pakistan, often some mentally ill people are punished to death by mobs for unknowingly ‘committing’ blasphemy. In 2012, a man widely reported by the media and police as ‘mentally unstable’ was arrested for blasphemy in Bahawalpur district, Punjab province. A mob gathered outside the police station, dragged him outside, and burned him to death. There have also been cases of misuse where such vulnerable individuals were subjected to sexual abuse and later accused of blasphemy by the abusers to cover up their crimes.

Such abuses towards mentally unsound people would have been a criminal case and the abusers would have been punished—unless they use the blasphemy law—as the mentally unstable victim cannot defend themselves.

Role of Anti-Terrorism courts

Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism courts were set up to ensure quick justice in cases such as terrorism, sectarian violence, targeted political killings, hijacking, kidnapping, extortion and even arms trafficking. Earlier gang rape was also included in it—but removed later.

They are also key to controlling mob attacks on blasphemy accused as such trials are held here.

Yet, these courts have been facing several problems due to lack of basic resources and understaffing. The posts of judges often remain vacant for months, and the state prosecutors complain of poor working conditions—with no offices, stationery, clerical staff or legal resources. These problems may have risen due to the fact that there are not sufficient funds allotted for the ATC infrastructure, one of the major challenges in Pakistan’s legal system. Due to this, these courts are not able to fulfill their primary objective—to provide ‘quick’ justice.

Moreover, these courts lack independence and are vulnerable to political influence—the judges are held accountable to the executive. Sometimes the witnesses often refuse to testify against the accused, as they fear assassination by terrorist groups the accused belongs to. The judges, state prosecutors and others also have personal security concerns which also lead to delays in trials.

Also, these courts deny terrorism suspects the right to equality before the law. They are not even tried in a public place with full defense and are not presumed innocent. Peshawar High Court advocate Ghulam Nabi even challenged the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Ordinance 2009 under Article 199 of the constitution in December 2009, saying that it violated basic human rights.

The blasphemy laws of Pakistan need to be repealed in today's Global civic society. People are fighting for equality everywhere around the globe. And now it is up to Pakistan to choose—whether to become a democracy or continue with a pseudo-democratic authoritarian regime which is based on extremist interpretation of religion.

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