PAKISTAN: Stay on Asia Bibi death penalty, victory for civil society

Pakistan courts have finally started taking a proactive approach to support religious minorities and safeguard their interest. On 22 July, the Supreme Court of Pakistan suspended the execution of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy. A three-member bench of the Supreme Court granted leave to appeal to Asia Bibi and stated that it is essential to examine her case for the administration of justice. The apex court suspended the decision of the Lahore High Court, which had upheld her death sentence. In 2010, Bibi was sentenced to death and, in 2014, the Lahore High Court had upheld her conviction.

The Asian Human Rights Commission has been monitoring Asia Bibi’s case since the beginning, and has found that it represents a prime example of injustice meted out to minorities, using blasphemy as a tool. Her case also highlights the failure of the Judiciary to protect the rights of the minority.

Paul Bhatti, a former Federal Minister for National Harmony and leader of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), has hailed the decision as a positive step not only for Asia, but also for many other people accused of blasphemy. Release international, an organization dealing with Christian prosecution, has, in its statement, praised the move by the apex court.  “But for justice to be done the Supreme Court must now look at acquitting Asia Bibi and grant her freedom”, read the statement.

Mr. Nadeem Anthony, who has been providing assistance in Asia’s case, has been quoted in aFides News Agency release, speaking about the significance of the Court suspension of Asia’s death sentence:

“Today is an important step forward. We are very satisfied. Now it is the time to pray and ask the Lord to melt the hearts of those involved in this case, including the judges, and pray that justice is done and Asia is released. We pray that Asia is strengthened by the grace of the Holy Spirit. And we pray for her release.”

According to Mr Saiful Malook, Asia’s lawyer, Asia’s neighbors had a grudge against her because of an earlier dispute. The key witnesses did not appear during hearings by the High Court and backed out subsequently. Malook has based Asia’s appeal on insufficient evidence, insisting on two key points: the first is the 5-day gap between the day when the incident took place and the day when said incident was reported to the police. According to the Pakistani criminal justice system, when there is a time gap between the day an incident has taken place and the day it is reported, then it is considered “dubious.

Asia, a 49 year old mother of five and has already spent the last six years of her life behind bars. She used to work as a field laborer in Sheikpura, a small village outside Lahore, Punjab Province. In 2009, she got into a quarrel with her co-workers, after she drank from the same water vessel as them. The co-workers, two Muslim women, later told a local cleric that during the argument, Bibi had insulted the Prophet.

Enraged by the allegation, Muhammad Salam, the local cleric publicly denounced Asia Bibi, inciting mobs across the District, demanding her arrest. After five days, local police placed Asia under arrest and in November 2010 she was found guilty in the District Court and sentenced to death by hanging. One cleric even offered a reward of 500,000 rupees, for the person who puts her to death. Militants have threatened to blow her up in prison and her husband and children have been forced to go into hiding.

Anti-pluralism has exposed a fault line within the country’s complex socio-political systems. The radical and military nexus has further eroded the interfaith harmony, once enjoyed by all citizens. The constitutional and legal discrimination introduced against non-Muslims has now rendered Pakistan as a country with the lowest levels of religious freedom.

Violence against the Christian community, which forms about 2% of the Pakistani population, has been on the rise. The community fears for its life and suffers social and economic discrimination. Even at the political level, Christians and other minorities are grossly under represented. In the National Assembly of Pakistan, only 4 members are nominated from minority groups. Representation in the Union Council, the Tehsil Council, and the District Council is 5%, but in the Provincial Assemblies and National Assembly, the government has failed to provide 5% representation to non-Muslims. The hardliner factions in Pakistani society have further alienated the once well-integrated community.

The law in a predominantly Muslim Pakistan does not define blasphemy, but stipulates that the penalty is death. Unproven claims regularly lead to mob violence. In November 2014, bonded labourer Shehzad Masih and his four-month pregnant wife, Shama, were beaten and burnt to death by a 1,500-strong mob. Blasphemy cases over the years have skyrocketed because the law is often abused to settle grudges and seize money or property.

A few high profile political personalities have also paid the price for supporting abolishment of blasphemy laws. A governor of Punjab Province, Salman Taseer, was shot dead by his bodyguard in 2011, after he had sought presidential pardon for Asia Bibi. The judge who later sentenced Taseer’s killer had to flee the country. Shabaz Bhatti, a Christian government minister, was shot dead for challenging the blasphemy law. Evidence in blasphemy trials often cannot be reproduced in court for fear of committing another offence and judges and lawyers often refuse to hear cases because they fear being attacked.

In 1986, the option of the death penalty was added to that of life imprisonment for violation of Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which reads as follows:

“Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

Then, in 1992, a Shariat (Islamic) court recommended that the option of life imprisonment be removed, leaving death as the mandatory punishment. The numbers have risen sharply since: 44 cases were registered between 1987 and 1999, and there were 52 in the year 2000 alone. According to activists, the total number of complaints (not all of them formally recorded by authorities) has topped 3,000 since the amendments to Section 295. Non-Muslims, who are four percent of Pakistan’s population, are 57 percent of those charged with blasphemy, and a majority of cases are filed in the Punjab Province.

The Council of Islamic Ideology, Pakistan’s foremost constitutional advisory body regarding Islamic injunctions, has proposed procedural amendments to guard against misuse against any individual, regardless of religion. Legal experts have argued for a principled distinction between the different parts of Section 295. Some of the old penal code provisions dating back from colonial times are really anti-hate speech provisions and meant to keep the peace in a multi-religious community vulnerable to waging violence.

Blasphemy laws of Pakistan have regressed Pakistan to the stone ages, where a charged mob is ready to avenge whatever it conceives to be blasphemy. The allegations are weighted more against perception then the Islamic injunctions on the issue. The judges too are often swayed by public perception in the face of the law being open-ended and ambiguous.