Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) was established in 1992 to address the human rights issues faced by the religious minorities, women and children. We primarily help victims of religious persecution, prisoners of conscience, forced conversion, sexual assault, illegal confinement, forced marriage, police torture, domestic violence and other oppression by aiding them with free legal aid and rehabilitative support.
For the past twenty eight years CLAAS has been active in promoting and protecting the rights of marginalized communities in Pakistan. CLAAS has responded to provide legal aid, protection and rehabilitative support to the innocent victims. CLAAS efforts have resulted in the acquittal of many victims who were charged under Blasphemy laws and have saved their lives. Over the years CLAAS has built a credible reputation in Pakistan for its specialized legal and rehabilitative services. Organizations, churches, NGOs and other institutions refer different cases to CLAAS from all over Punjab. The work of CLAAS is a part of the human rights movement in Pakistan and its activities reinforce and strengthen the human rights issues.
CLAAS works in close association with the number of NGOs including Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, National Commission for Justice and Peace, AGHS, Aurat Foundation and others. This is an informal relationship and CLAAS feels it is important to maintain the nature of such relationships, for these remain the backbone support, both morally and intellectually of CLAAS activities. In those cases where CLAAS collaborate with like mind organizations on issues of common interest, resources in kind or facilities are shared with these organizations. This local contribution improves our outreach and our ability to handle more cases then we normally can.
CLAAS is represented on several national committees like Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), War Against Rape and Joint Action Committee for Peoples Rights.
The head and founder of Centre for Legal Aid Assistance & Settlement Mr. Joseph Francis through his sincere dedication, commitment and strong faith was able to provide a reliable platform in form of CLAAS to all marginalized and persecuted communities in Pakistan. CLAAS biggest achievement is the trust and love of people it serves. Everyday people approach CLAAS without any fear or hesitation but with firm confidence and hope of being helped and taken care of.
In 2002 in recognition of his exceptional human rights work, Mr. Joseph Francis was presented with the “Champion of Human Rights” award by the French government in a ceremony held in Paris.
In 2004 Advocate International presented Mr. Joseph Francis with the “Good Samaritan Award” in a ceremony held in Washington, USA.
The MBE (the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) is a prestigious honour awarded to individuals for their significant achievements or exceptional service, which stands out as an example to others. On June 3rd, 2011 On behalf of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the British High Commissioner in a grand ceremony at his residence presented the Honorary MBE award and Seal of the order to Mr. Joseph Francis.
Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) was established with the vision of providing free legal aid to religious minorities especially Christians who were charged under Blasphemy. We also provide legal assistance in cases of abduction, illegal detention, sexual assault, forced marriages, domestic violence and forced conversion and all sorts of cases of persecution. CLAAS has a panel of four lawyers on its payroll, who pursue cases in lower courts and High courts in Lahore and surrounding cities. Local lawyers are hired for cases outside Punjab.
CLAAS is known for its reliable and impartial reporting of incidents of human rights violations. Besides accuracy and comprehensiveness; on time approach is a critical factor in validity of any fact finding mission. To acquire actual facts we conduct our own fact findings of incidents of human rights violations; after which a report of the incident is published. This helps us in assessing the situation and the need of the affected individual or family. In some cases legal assistances is not required in such cases we still maintain documentation of these incidents and use these reports as case studies. Through these publications and reports we highlight persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan. These reports and publications are shared with like-minded local and international human rights organizations, individuals, diplomatic missions and church organizations. This helps us in bringing these important issues and cases to the notice of national and international community and to motivate and mobilize public opinion on the situation of human rights violations in Pakistan.
CLAAS also conduct fact findings for various embassies and UNHCR certifying facts/claims by Pakistani asylum seekers in respective countries. Due to its honest reporting CLAAS verifications letters are accepted by US State Department, European Immigration Office and UNHCR.
In the past CLAAS was engaged in quarterly jail visits covering Punjab. Through these visits we were able to collect data on number of female, children and male non-Muslims confined in different jails and the nature of their cases. We were able to identify their needs including legal aid. Since 1999 the government has restricted the access of nongovernmental organizations to prisons. We have written to Interior Ministry as well as Home Ministry to allow us to at least with the Christian inmates our request has been denied due to security reasons.
CLAAS will continue to work to get permission to visit prisons on monthly basis in our quest to provide legal aid to those who do not have means to hire a lawyer. CLAAS intends to start a Prison Ministry through this Ministry we will arrange a pastor to visit the inmates and besides giving them spiritual counseling he will hold Sunday, Christmas and Easter Mass for the inmates. Due to heightened security, provincial and federal authorities denied any access to any detainees under blasphemy and Youhanabad case.
REHABILITATION CENTRE (APNA GHAR)
In cases of sexual abuse, forced conversion, forced marriage, abduction and domestic violence female survivors not only bear physical and emotional pain but are victimized again by the shame and stigma forced on them in a culture that places blame on the victim and ignores those who brutally attacked them. In many cases these survivors are rejected and cast out by their own parents, husbands and communities.
In some cases these women survivors face threat to their lives from the perpetrators; who through local police and community leaders pressurize these survivors to drop legal and criminal charges against them. These survivors are given safe boarding and lodging in CLAAS shelter home called “Apna Ghar”. CLAAS ensure that women and children staying in “Apna Ghar” are provided treatment not only for their physical wounds but also for their emotional healing. Awareness raising sessions and workshops are arranged to facilitate these survivors about their legal rights. These workshops are conducted with the help of qualified human rights activists and lawyers. Women staying in “Apna Ghar” are also provided hands-on skilled based trainings to empower them to become financially independent. CLAAS also encourage them to get formal education by providing them a female teacher who comes to shelter to give them tuition. Any survivor who wish to continue their studies in school or college, observing all security measures CLAAS make arrangement for their admission in regular schools and colleges.
Religious intolerance in Pakistan makes it extremely dangerous for individuals who find spiritual fulfillment in Christianity and wants to practice their Christian faith. Furthermore, free will marriages and Inter faith marriages are not acceptable in Pakistan. Women who dare to marry without the consent of the family and especially outside her religion are viewed as someone who has brought shame and disgrace to the family.
The homicide of the victim is viewed as a way to restore the reputation and honour of the family. The perpetrators of honor killings are often legally pardoned due to loophole in the present law. Since its operation in 1992 CLAAS was approached by individuals, couples and families who converted to Christianity and Muslim woman married to a Christian male were now facing serious threats from their respective families and local radical groups. At that time CLAAS was unable to provide them shelter but extended legal help in criminal cases filed against them. In 2004 Barnabas Funds UK enabled CLAAS to purchase a piece of land to build a Safe House for new converts. It has proved to be a safe haven for couples and families who face life threats.
A very important activity of CLAAS is to do advocacy and lobbying on important issues like misuse of the blasphemy law, forced conversion of Christian and Hindu minor girls, forced disappearances and repeal of all discriminatory laws against non-Muslim citizens and women. To pursue this we arrange press conferences and public meetings to mobilize and build mainstream consensus on these issues. To gain support from the international community on these issue and
specific cases of religious intolerance CLAAS facilitate briefings and meetings with the diplomatic community in Islamabad. We also do lobbying with members of European Parliament, British Parliament and members of the United States Congress, Senate, USCIRF and US State Department. CLAAS utilizes every opportunity to speak on international platform highlighting various human rights violations to motivate and mobilize opinion of international community to intervene to make Pakistani government fulfill its obligations to international treaties and conventions its signatory to. CLAAS along with other progressive individuals and human rights organizations has been very vocal on national and international platforms demanding the Pakistani government to make procedural amendaments to stop the misuse of Blashpmey laws.
COMMUNITY AWARENESS PROGRAM
People who do not know about their human rights are the most vulnerable to having them abused and they often lack the skills and confidence to effectively advocate for their protection. Knowing your legal rights as a citizen is important for the protection of these rights. CLAAS aims to empower people especially minorities and women with the knowledge of their rights. CLAAS is committed to raise the level of awareness on the importance of gender equality, religious tolerance and human rights.
existing laws and legal system in Pakistan to sensitize and educate them on how they are affected by discriminatory laws and harsh practices and how they could defend their rights. Most importantly through this awareness program, we sensitize our young girls and boys who are under high risk of being potential victims either of forced conversion, sexual assault or human trafficking. We discuss and share what preventive measures they can take to mitigate the risk of becoming a victim. CLAAS also arranges social integration programs to talk about the work of CLAAS and how our community can participate in our work to strengthen our struggle against injustice and discrimination.
WOMEN EMPOWERMENT/ SEWING CENTRE of CLAAS:
Women empowerment is not possible without giving social, economic, political and personal rights to every female living in this country. There are various laws that are discriminatory to women and restrict them from participating in decision making. CLAAS is very vocal on women rights and has long struggled along with other prominent women rights organizations for the
promotion of equal rights to education for girls, change of Pakistan family laws to protect women, equal pay scale for women and right to own property. CLAAS aim to end gender based violence and discrimination in our society. Through its platform CLAAS encourage young girls to actively participate in all activities carried out in their own communities, churches, villages and even families to assert their presences. Empowering our young women can play a significant role in the economic development of our community and nation and that is only possible with women employment. To empower our young women CLAAS has organized programs, workshops, skilled based trainings in jewelry making, sewing and stitching, cosmetology and other activities to enable them to generate income to support themselves and their families. We also encourage our girls to gain education and in some cases CLAAS financially support girls who want to study but due to lack of financial means and family problems are unable to continue their education.
The children on brick kilns are most deprived and marginalized section of the society. They are born in that situation and grow up as a part of the system where they cannot attend school and instead work with their parents. As their parents are busy in making bricks and paying off the debt from the owner, children are not aware about the religion and spiritual as well as academic education. In December 2015 during a visit at brick kiln and having a discussion with the brick kiln families
Mr. M.A. Joseph Francis realized the need that the children must have basic Bible study teaching. Sunday school is important in the spiritual development of Christians because it provides a forum for learning. Sunday school encourages spiritual interaction between the students and the teachers, as well as providing a comprehensive way of learning. CLAAS took initiative to start Sunday school at brick kiln in different areas near Lahore. Currently CLAAS support five Sunday schools; almost 300 children are given Christian teachings through these schools.
SETTLEMENT OF SURVIVORS:
In most cases of blasphemy the alleged victims are the sole bread earners of the family. With them behind bars the survival of the remaining family members become extremely difficult. They are refused jobs; they face social boycott and even threats to their lives. In such cases CLAAS provide monthly grocery and some financial help to these families. In some cases CLAAS provided an auto rickshaw to the adult in the family so that they can earn their own living. CLAAS also encourage the Christian students to attain formal education. Any survivor who wishes to continue their study CLAAS make arrangement for their admission in regular schools and colleges
DISASTER RELIEF/ MEDICAL SUPPORTS:
From the beginning of its operation CLAAS has been very active in providing immediate relief to survivors of mob attacks: on Churches, Christian residential areas, villages and now suicide bomb blasts in public places and parks. After initial visit to the place of occurrence CLAAS identify the areas where assistance is needed. It has been observed that the individuals injured in bomb blast require immediate and long term medical care. Most of these survivors live with lifelong physical and mental disabilities. Through its friends and partners CLAAS has been able to provide one time financial help to cover medical expenditures.
CLAAS always felt the need to do more in cases of Blasphemy where the male member of the family was accused and put behind bars. In almost every case the person accused was the sole bread earner of the family. CLAAS was also approached by many widows who were unable to feed their children due to lack of resources. Also there were victims family members who were unable to find work due to Barnabas Funds – UK was the answer to CLAAS prayers to help these Christian families in time of need.
Barnabas supported CLAAS to start a Feeding Project to give monthly grocery to needy families. Right now through this project forty (40) Christian families are given grocery on monthly basis.