Doctrine divides, Action unites

 

  October 2014

 

Will Aasia Bibi Ever See Justice?

Nasir Saeed
 


Aasia Bibi (Photo from http://blogs.mediapart.fr )

Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law is once again in the headlines as the world’s media is now 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 16, 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 to 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 second 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 has been facing grave 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 in Pakistan and how religiously intolerant it has become.

How we can forget, for example, the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who was killed by his own police guard, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, for supporting Aasia Bibi and talking to the country’s president at the time, Asif Ali 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 Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh).”

Qadri was 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 the judge, 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 Aug. 15, 2002, and set Ayub Masih free. His case was the first one 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 killed by the extremists.

This murder 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 issue 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. In addition, several innocent people have lost their lives in vigilante killings. Furthermore, mob justice is becoming more popular as no one is ever questioned, and victims are not even given a chance to prove their innocence. Moreover, very often due process is unfairly denied to the victims of the 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 lawmaking becoming 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 no one 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 for a debate in Parliament 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 that “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 Parliament of Pakistan 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.


* Nasir Saeed is a freelance columnist in Pakistan.

 

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