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LAHORE: A ruling party legislator has submitted a bill to the Punjab Assembly against forced conversions proposing a punishment from five years to life imprisonment to curb this practice.

PML-N MPA Hina Pervaiz Butt has drafted the Punjab Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill 2017 and will table it in the assembly (if allowed) in the coming session.

This is the first time that a PML-N legislator has submitted a bill against forced conversions.

Earlier, such a bill saw a raucous opposition by various groups in Sindh. The Sindh governor in January last had refused to ratify the Sindh Assembly’s forced conversion bill, officially known as the Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill.

Five years to life-term punishment proposed; bill may be tabled in coming session

Ms Hina is quite positive that in Punjab she and some other members will lobby for tabling and getting it approved.

“The incidents of forced marriages are under reported in Punjab. If this bill is passed it will not only helpful in checking this practice but also mitigate the concerns of the minorities,” Hina Pervaiz told Dawn on Wednesday.

To a question whether she was asked (by leadership) to draft this bill, she said: “Since I have been working with many minority women this issue has come to forth compelling me to come up with this proposal (bill).”

According to the bill, the forced conversion means forcing a person to adopt another religion under duress, force, coercion or threat. “Any such conversion can take place through different modes which shall include but not be limited to marriage, bonded labour, etc.”

Proposing punishment for forced conversion the bill says any person who forcefully converts another person in a manner identified in Section 5 of this bill shall be liable to imprisonment of either description for a minimum of five years and maximum of life imprisonment and a fine to be paid to the victim.

“Whoever performs, conducts, directs, brings about or in any way or facilitates a marriage having knowledge that either or both parties are victims of forced conversion shall be liable to imprisonment of either description for minimum three years and a fine to be paid to the victim... and this shall include any persons who have provided the logistical support or any other essential services for the marriage ceremony.”

It further proposes that any person who is an abettor to a forced conversion shall be liable to imprisonment of either description for a minimum of five years and a fine to be paid to the victim.

“In case of forced conversion, the accused, in addition to a charge of forced conversion shall also be liable, where applicable, for offences which may include but not be limited to: chief marriage under the Punjab Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 (XIX of 1929), Forced Marriage under Section 498B of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860, Wrongful Confinement under Chapter XVI of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860, Rape under Sections 375 and 376 of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860, kidnapping, abducting or inducing a woman to compel for marriage etc, under Section 365B of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860, kidnapping or abducting from lawful guardianship under Section 361 of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860, kidnapping or abducting a person under the age of 14 under Section 364A of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860, kidnapping or abducting in order to subject person to grievous hurt, slavery etc, bonded labour under relevant sections of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992, and any other law for the time being in force.”

The bill says no person shall be deemed to have changed their religion until they attain the age of 18. “Any minor (under 18 years of age) 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.

“Nothing in sub-section (1) and (2) shall extend to circumstances where the parents or guardians of the minor decide to change the religion of the family,” it says.

The role of the government has been defined as it should issue a notification to all law enforcement agencies, relevant bodies, institutions, committees and commissions to ensure the enforcement of this Act.

This Act and the contents thereof receive wide publicity through electronic and print media in English, Urdu and local languages.

The government officers, police and members of the judicial service are given periodic sensitisation and awareness training on the issues addressed by this Act.

Effective protocols are formulated by ministries and departments concerned which may include those relating to minorities, health, education, women, social welfare and labour, to address the issue to forced conversion and that the same are periodically revised.

Support service which shall include but not be limited to shelter, legal aid, medical aid is made available for the support of victim.

The government will have to create shelters specifically for victims of forced conversion. “Specific courts are notified to hear cases of forced conversion. Until such notifications are issued, courts or competent jurisdiction shall hear any cases falling under this Act. Any other role it deems appropriate for the proper implementation of this Act.”

The bill also proposed that the government may notify a particular commission, committee or institution with a primary focus on human rights, to oversee and ensure the implementation of this Act.

The government shall provide additional budget, infrastructure, resources and staff for the commission, committee or institution notified under sub-section (2), it has proposed.

About the procedure for the complaint, a victim, aggrieved person or any other authorised by the victim or an informer may present a petition to the court. The court shall fix the first date of hearing, which shall not exceed seven days from the date of the receipt of the petition by the court.

“On receipt of such petition, the court shall with or without issuing an interim order issue a notice upon the accused calling upon him to show-cause within seven days of receipt of notice. Any case of forced conversion before the court shall be disposed of within a period of 90 days, it proposes.

Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2017