Set to be deported from the United Kingdom late last year, a 23-year-old Afghan man stumbled into the pro bono Kent Law Clinic fearing for his life. Since arriving in Britain in 2007, the man had lost his faith and now considered himself an atheist — a worldview punishable by death in his home country.
“In the first interview we did with him, the first thing he said was that he was afraid for his life because he doesn’t believe in any God anymore," said Sheona York, an immigration and asylum lawyer with the law clinic. “He didn’t realize that what he was afraid of amounted to an asylum claim.”
Nor did many in the U.K. until its Home Office on Tuesday granted the Afghan asylum — the first known case on public record worldwide in which a nonbeliever has been granted asylum on grounds of religious persecution.
A Home Office spokeswoman told Al Jazeera in an email that the office does not comment on individual cases, but she added that the U.K. has a “proud history of granting asylum to those who need it.”
Afghans of non-Muslim faiths have been granted similar rulings in the U.K. In 2009 the country granted asylum to an Afghan man who had converted to Christianity, which is also forbidden in Afghanistan.
Atheist-rights groups applauded the decision as a historic ruling for nonbelievers everywhere.
“Freedom of belief for humanists, atheists and other nonreligious people is as important as freedom of belief for the religious, but it is too often neglected by Western governments who focus too narrowly on the rights of Christians abroad,” said Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, in comments posted on the website of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).
York told Al Jazeera that while the law clinic, a service of the University of Kent’s Law School, was unable to find a prior ruling in which an atheist was granted asylum, U.N. and E.U. conventions on refugees suggested a clear precedent for her client’s claim.
Article 10 of the European Council’s 2011 treaty providing guidelines for granting asylum holds that fear of persecution on religious grounds must be taken into account and specifies that “the concept of religion shall in particular include the holding of theistic, nontheistic and atheistic beliefs.”
The young Afghan man told the Home Office that his fears were heightened by events at a recent wedding he attended in Pakistan, where he was told he could not sit and eat with other celebrants because he was not a Muslim. He expected discrimination and even criminal persecution in Afghanistan, which is rated by the IHEU as one of the worst places in the world to be an atheist.
The Afghan constitution states that Islam is the “religion of the state” and that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” The government’s observance of Sharia, or Islamic law, imposes severe punishments on apostates, including death by hanging. Afghanistan, whose population is 99 percent Muslim, frequently enforces these edicts.
In 2008, Sayed Pervez Kambaksh was sentenced to death for blasphemy after he distributed an article titled “The Atheist,” which criticized the Quran’s treatment of women. International outrage prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to pardon Kambaksh and allow him to leave the country in 2009.
York, however, played down the perceived historic nature of the case, noting that unpublicized tribunals may have made similar rulings in the past. “It’s more of an extension of a principle that’s already begun to develop in the U.K.,” she said.
Tuesday’s decision can be placed in the context of a recent wave of rulings in the U.K. that have expanded what constitutes persecution in asylum cases.
A landmark 2010 ruling from the U.K. Supreme Court that said it would be unreasonable to return two gay men to their home countries of Cameroon and Iran, where homosexuality is forbidden, because they should not be required to keep their sexual orientation hidden.
“If a person facing persecution had to live discreetly, that would defeat the object of the refugee convention,” York said. “The same applies to religion.”