More Injustice Against Asia Bibi

On 31 October, Pakistan’s Supreme Court overruled the death sentence against Asia Bibi, a farm labourer accused of blasphemy. The government back-tracked on their support of Bibi by promising not to oppose a court petition to reverse Bibi’s release. It also pledged to work in the meantime to put her name on the exit control list which would prevent her leaving the country. 

Background

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan in South Asia is the sixth-most populous country with a population exceeding 212,742,631 people. As a result of the Pakistan Movement led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Indian subcontinent's struggle for independence, the sovereign state of Pakistan was created in 1947 as an independent homeland for Indian Muslims.

The Pakistan Penal Code prohibits blasphemy against any recognized religion, with penalties ranging from fines to death sentences. Blasphemy laws were introduced through Sections 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code during the dictatorial regime of General Ziaul Haq. From 1967 to 2014, over 1,300 people have been accused of blasphemy. Muslims constitute the majority of those booked under these laws.

Over 60 people accused of blasphemy have been murdered before their respective trials were over, and prominent figures who opposed the blasphemy law have been assassinated. Since 1990, 62 people have been murdered as a result of blasphemy allegations. While running for office, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan offered a full-throated defence of Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws in the run-up to the general election on 25 July 2018.

On June 14, 2009, Asia “Bibi” Noreen, a farm labourer and mother of five in Pakistan, fetched a cup of water for her fellow farm labourers. Asia, a Christian, took a sip before passing it to her Muslim colleagues - who were appalled at the thought of sharing utensils with a non-Muslim. News of the scandal spread, and a mob demanded she convert to Islam, which Asia refused to do. This refusal was taken as a direct insult to the prophet Mohammed. A local cleric registered a criminal complaint with the police. She was later beaten up at her home, during which her accusers say she confessed to blasphemy. She was arrested after a police investigation. Asia was arrested, tried for blasphemy and sentenced to death in 2010. 

Analysis

On 31 October, Pakistan’s supreme court struck down the death sentence for blasphemy that was handed down to Christian woman Asia Bibi, in a long-delayed, landmark decision that will free her after nine years on death row. The decision has ignited countrywide protests from Islamist groups.

The court, in a three-member bench led by the chief justice, Saqib Nisar, ordered Bibi’s release on 31 October in Islamabad. By that afternoon, thousands of club-wielding demonstrators had blocked highways, burned tyres and pelted police with stones in major cities including Islamabad and Karachi. Over 150 people were arrested on charges of arson, vandalism and violence during the protests.

Publication of the 56-page ruling was delayed for three weeks after blasphemy campaigners promised to “paralyse” the country and kill the judges if they did not uphold Bibi’s death sentence. In a televised address after the verdict’s release, the prime minister, Imran Khan, issued a strong defence of the decision, terming it “according to the constitution and Pakistan’s constitution is according to the teachings of Islam”.

On 3 November, the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) administration signed an agreement with the anti-blasphemy group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) on Friday night, giving in to many of its demands in the face of massive, countrywide protests calling for Bibi to be put to death. In a document signed by the PTI’s religious affairs minister, the government promised not to oppose a court petition to reverse Bibi’s release. It also pledged to work in the meantime to put her name on the exit control list which would prevent her leaving the country.

“Placing Asia Bibi on the ECL is like signing her death warrant,” said Wilson Chowdhry of the British Pakistani Christian Association. Bibi, a mother of five, remains in the same prison where last month two men tried to kill her, although she has been shifted out of her windowless cell.

In 2011, the governor of Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, and the minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, were murdered after they spoke in defence of Bibi and called for reform of blasphemy laws. Her lawyer has fled the country, fearing for his safety.

Asia Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, in a brief video message, said they were in danger in Pakistan. He pleaded with President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Teresa May to grant the family and their 5 daughters asylum. 

Assessment

Our assessment is that the agreement to hold Asia Bibi in Pakistan is a disturbing capitulation on the part of the government. We believe the case highlights two issues: one is how allegations of blasphemy can be used to settle personal scores. The second, and more troubling issue is that pandering to Islamist groups in the run up to the elections has put Prime Minister Imran Khan in the position of being unable to prevent those groups from using vigilante justice to persecute religious minorities.