The European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament has today presented Joseph Francis as its nominee for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought. MEPs from the foreign affairs, human rights and development committees met this afternoon to be presented with each group’s nominee for the prestigious prize named after Soviet scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov. It was established in December 1988 by the European Parliament as a means to honour individuals or organizations who had dedicated their lives to the defence of human rights and freedoms.
Three finalists will be chosen by the committees, with the final decision being made by the leaders of the political groups.
Mr Francis was put forward to the ECR group by Netherlands delegation leader Peter Van Dalen MEP. He was proposed to the committee by ECR human rights spokesman Charles Tannock MEP.
Francis is the founder and director of the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). Founded in 1992 it addresses the needs of victims of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, through legal assistance and other means such as offering safe houses and relocation. The laws have been contentious since the formation of Pakistan but they were brought into the spotlight when a Christian mother-of-five, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death in November 2010 for insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws have once again hit the headlines this summer after a 14-year old girl was arrested and faced life in prison for allegedly burning the Quran – a charge that is widely believed to be bogus.
There is widespread evidence that the laws are abused to settle scores or as an instrument of religious hatred. Most convictions are later overturned by the High Court but often victims must flee persecution and several have either been murdered in prison or following their release.
In July 2009, Mr Francis was held in a Pakistani prison in a politically-motivated case. He was released after several weeks. In 2011, he was given an MBE by Queen Elizabeth II.
Dr Tannock said:
“By granting Joseph Francis the Sakharov prize the European Parliament can send out a strong signal that this Pakistani law is intolerant and open to abuse. Acts intended to incite religious hatred should be condemned, but this particular law has time and again been abused to settle old scores or to trample religious pluralism, which is surely a key tenet of a civil society.”
Mr Van Dalen said:
“Joseph Francis and CLAAS have supported hundreds of people through the trauma of falling foul of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which have been significantly abused. Many innocent people have faced time in prison, and suffered severe persecution because of this ill-judged law.
“In giving Mr Francis this award, the European Parliament has an opportunity to both stand up to this unjust law, and to support those groups that help its victims.”
Notes: A video of Mr Van Dalen setting out why Mr Francis should receive the award is available here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cyQUpBlmP4&feature=youtu.be