Pakistan has a large Muslim majority population (96.58 per cent), the bulk of whom are Sunni. There were simmering tensions between the majority Sunni and minority Shia Muslims. In February 2006 the violence came to the strategically important North West Frontier Province (NWFP) bordering Afghanistan. At least 31 people were killed and scores injured after a suicide bomber attacked a congregation of Shia Muslims marking the Ashura festival in Hangu. In May 2006, at least 57 people were killed, amongst them the entire leadership of the Sunni Tehrik group, in the suicide bombing of a congregation of Sunnis celebrating the Eid Milad festival in Karachi. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 4,000 people, largely from the Shia community, have died as a result of sectarian hostility since 1980.

In July 2005, the Provincial Assembly of the NWFP, led by the religious coalition MMA (Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal), voted in favour of the Hasba Bill, which establishes a Muhtasib (a person qualified to be a Federal Sharia Court judge) to monitor observance of Islamic and Sharia 'values'. The Supreme Court subsequently annulled the draft law because it was 'discriminatory'. However, in November 2006, the Provincial Assembly approved the bill with minor changes that they said took into account the Supreme Court's concerns. The bill has sparked protests by the APMA (All Pakistan Minorities Alliance), who, together with human rights organizations, are calling for its dissolution, claiming it seeks to 'Talibanize' both the NWFP and the country as a whole.

The Asia Human Rights Commission notes that it has become a common practice in Pakistan for Muslim seminaries to encourage young men to convert non-Muslim minorities to Islam. Young Hindu girls are usually kidnapped for this purpose but, when arrested by the police, their Muslim male kidnappers produce marriage certificates and evidence from Madrassas stating that the girls have adopted Islam. Many of these girls are minors but the courts appear to overlook this fact and simply accept the certificates as legitimate.

In Baluchistan, the head of the Bugti tribe was killed in an incident with the armed forces in August 2006 while hiding out in caves near his village, Dera Bugti. Baluchistan is the most economically marginalized province in Pakistan and he and his followers were demanding greater compensation from the government for exploitation of the natural gas reserves present on their lands. This killing caused huge riots across Baluchistan and in other parts of the country, and highlighted the unequal relations between the provinces and the centre.

The Hudood Ordinance, a set of laws enacted in 1979, makes rape victims in Pakistan liable to prosecution, and has led to thousands of women being imprisoned for so-called 'honour' crimes. The laws rendered most sexual assault victims unable to seek redress through the criminal justice system, deeming them guilty of illegal sex rather than victims of unlawful violence or abuse. The Hudood Ordinance has always provoked debate across the country, with members of the MMA religious coalition opposing any changes as 'un-Islamic' and all other parties and NGOs calling for a full repeal. In a small but important victory for women's rights, the National Assembly finally passed the November 2006 Women's Protection Bill, an amendment to the Hudood Ordinance. Although it still leaves many other discriminatory provisions in place, this amendment permits rape victims to file charges under the criminal law instead of the previous religious law (which required four male witnesses to guarantee proof of rape).

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.