There is a lot of intolerance in the world, but nothing, really, could be more intolerant than punishing somebody simply for their beliefs. A core facet of a democracy is the importance of freedom of speech, and I would like this evening to talk about how disconcerting it is to see a country like Pakistan that declares itself a democracy and a member of the Commonwealth, sharing our shared values as a part of that Commonwealth, having on its statutes the death penalty for blasphemy. I thought this back when Asia Bibi was on death row in Pakistan. She has now, on appeal, been acquitted and released from prison but banned from travelling out of the country. In reality, she has swapped a cell for an ongoing form of incarceration and danger outside the relative protection of the prison, as she is hunted by Islamic extremists in her country. The appeal court made the observation in releasing her that there were no credible witnesses. Nine years is a long time to spend in prison for a circumstance in which there were no credible witnesses.
The case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian, is reasonably well known. She was reportedly charged in 2009 with blasphemy, arising from having drunk from a cup that was reserved for her fellow Muslim farm workers. That led to her being accused of having contaminated the water and, when she stood up for her beliefs, that accusation spiralled into one of blasphemy. She languished in a small cell from 2009 to 2018, separated from other prisoners for her own safety. Two Pakistani politicians who spoke out in support of her have been assassinated. The Christian minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, and a Muslim politician named Salmaan Taseer were both killed after advocating on Bibi's behalf and criticising Pakistan's blasphemy laws. Taseer was killed by his very own personal protection officer. These two were brave men indeed.
Australia provides foreign aid to Pakistan to the tune of about $50 million a year. The Department of Foreign Affairs report for 2016-17 states that the aid program for that year helped 3,800 Pakistani women who were survivors of domestic violence to access support services. One would suggest that Asia Bibi is facing the most extreme violence possible and, in all countries that declare themselves to be free and democratic, we should see people standing firm in her defence, making sure that this does not happen.
We've learned from the actions of the international community in recent years that it's possible to exercise leverage on nations on matters of principle. No doubt leverage can be exercised on Pakistan, just as the American preacher recently released by Turkey and the individuals released by North Korea in recent times show that diplomatic pressure can be effective. Surely this applies to the elected government of Pakistan under Prime Minister Imran Khan, a renowned cricketer and international personality, who is familiar, of course, with the Western values that underpin the Commonwealth and has been exposed to aspects of democracy all over the world. It's hard to conceive that privately he would believe anyone should be executed on the charge of blasphemy. It's in his hands to protect Ms Bibi and allow her to travel abroad and to seek sanctuary from a willing country.
It's a matter then of some pleasure that I saw in recent times that Australia has added its name to the list of nations that are willing to offer sanctuary to Asia Bibi. At a time when in this country we are having debates about religious freedom, about freedom of speech, it is fundamental that we stand up in this country and around the world for the fundamentals, and freedom of speech—the freedom to live your beliefs, speak those beliefs and do so without being reprimanded for offending another person—is absolutely non-negotiable. So I'm really pleased to see Australia take this strong stance against those who would oppress people who speak their mind and those who oppress people who simply want to live their faith and go about their work, go about their business, without intruding upon the rights of others to do the same.
I seize this opportunity to encourage Pakistan to re-evaluate the way that it approaches freedom of speech, and I encourage our government to continue to defend these values at home and abroad in the years to come.