PAKISTAN: Will Aasia Bibi ever see justice?

Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law is once again in the headlines. The world’s media is talking about Aasia Bibi’s enraging and sorrowful story. She was accused of blasphemy in 2009 and since 2010 has been on death row. But on October 16th the Lahore High Court rejected her appeal, and her suffering because of the country’s blasphemy law could continue for many more years. A further appeal is due to be submitted in the Supreme Court, and although there is hope that she will be freed, there is no guarantee that after an acquittal she will be safe and be able to lead a normal life.

Aasia’s blasphemy case will be the 2nd in Pakistan’s history to be heard by the Supreme Court. The majority of cases are decided in the High Court with convictions being quashed, but this time unfortunately and unexpectedly the High Court upheld her death sentence.

Aasia was facing great threats to her life as a bounty was announced and attempts were even made to attack her in prison.

It is being said that the judges were swayed because of pressure from the dozens of Islamists present in court. Unfortunately extremists have become so powerful that sometimes judges and the police become helpless – as seen in the case of Rashid Rehman, a lawyer who was openly threatened in court and then killed in his office for defending the university lecturer Junaid Hafeez.  It is terrifying to think what kind of society has developed and how religiously intolerant it has become.

How we can forget the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who was killed by his own police guard, Malik Mumtaz Qadri for supporting Aasia Bibi and talking to president Zardari for her pardon. Another Christian Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti was also killed for supporting Aasia and demanding changes in the blasphemy law which is increasingly being misused against Christians who consider it a root cause of their persecution.

Qadri has proudly admitted his crime telling the court “I acted against a blasphemer as per the guidelines of the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH)”.

He is treated as a hero and therefore when he was sentenced to death by Judge Syed Pervez Ali Shah, the lawyers and Islamists surrounded the court and threatened to kill him, forcing him to flee Pakistan.

It is a growing trend among extremists to kill anyone accused of blasphemy and to become a hero in this world and to secure a place in “paradise” after death. The government’s silence encourages this mindset despite it being its responsibility to protect all its citizens, even those who are in prison.

It is unlikely that Aasia will be executed but still it is difficult to predict whether she will receive justice as today’s judiciary is very different to that which set aside the High Court’s decision on 15th August 2002, and set Ayub Masih free. His was the first case to reach the Supreme Court and one of the country’s most famous lawyers Abid Hasan Minto had agreed to represent him. His previous lawyer Asma Jahangir is said to have refused to represent Ayub any further after receiving death threats.

She had also successfully represented Salamat and Rehmat in the Lahore High Court, but the judge who freed them was murdered by the extremists.

This sent a ripple of fear through the legal fraternity. The refusal of lawyers to take up blasphemy cases greatly upset Bishop Dr. John Joseph, and therefore when Ayub Masih was sentenced to death, he shot himself dead in front of the same court in Sahiwal in protest of the injustice being done to Christians in the name of religion.

Although many politicians, including the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, were saddened by the tragic death of the Bishop, and promises were made to look into the matter, the changing situation of the country because of the Indian nuclear explosions saw a change in priorities and the whole matter was put aside.

The suffering caused by the blasphemy law is severe and its impact is palpable as several Churches, Temples and Christian towns have been reduced to ash and several innocent people have lost their lives in vigilante killings. Mob justice is becoming more popular as no one is ever questioned and victims are not even given a chance to prove themselves innocent, and very often unfairlydue process is denied to the victims of blasphemy law.

Aasia’s case is another chance for Nawaz Sharif to look into this matter which he owes to Bishop John Joseph.  It is also a chance for him to stop law making a mockery of Pakistan and to promote a positive image of the country.

It is also the responsibility of the present government to prevent this law from further misuse so people like Aasia Bibi do not have to suffer in prison for years, and nobody is killed for  crimes they have never committed.

Aasia vehemently denies the charges against her, but yet she has been denied justice and now after the court’s decision she will have to spend several more years in prison. She and many other people falsely charged under the blasphemy law are suffering needlessly and it is the government’s duty to bring this matter up in the Parliament, for a debate and amend it appropriately. Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi, a member of the Council of Islamic ideology had recommended the same punishment for the false accuser stating “I think the government should adopt this as one of the safeguards”.

Recently we have seen the news that Ireland is going to announce a referendum in relation to removing blasphemy laws from their constitution. Why shouldn’t the Pakistani Parliament learn from it?

Since Aasia’s appeal is going to be submitted to the Supreme Court, I remain hopeful that the judges will decide her case diligently and without any fear and pressure, and that she will finally obtain justice.

Document Type : Forwarded Article
Document ID : AHRC-FAT-027-2014
Countries : Pakistan,
Issues : Extrajudicial killings, Freedom of religion, Judicial system, Rule of law,