South Asia

In Pakistan, Acquittal of Christian Woman Accused of Blasphemy Shines Ray of Hope

After the Supreme Court ordered that Asiya Bibi be freed, citizens and human rights activists hope that the judgment marks the beginning of sculpting a liberal, more inclusive Pakistan.

Lahore: On Wednesday morning, Pakistanis were caught off guard when in an unprecedented decision, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered that Asiya Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, be freed. The three-member bench was headed by the Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar.

Asiya Bibi was arrested in 2009, from Ittan Wali, a village some distance away from Sheikhupura. She was first held at the Sheikhupura jail as an undertrial prisoner and then shifted to the notorious Adiala prison in Rawalpindi.

Pakistan’s blasphemy law was enacted under colonial rule in 1927 and was originally meant for all religions.
After partition, the law was retained, but during military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq’s 11-year reign, several additions were also made, including life imprisonment for those defiling or desecrating the Holy Quran. The portion about the accused being given a death sentence was added during Nawaz Sharif’s first term as prime minister.

Also Read: Pakistan Acquits Christian Woman Facing Death in Blasphemy Case

Only ten blasphemy cases were reportedly heard in court in the 58 years between 1927 and 1985. Since then, more than 4,000 cases have been handled.

Asiya Bibi’s was the first case to receive widespread media attention. Part of the reason was that a woman had been accused of blasphemy for the first time.

However, media coverage only intensified after then Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer was shot dead in 2011 by his own security guard because of his remarks on Asiya and the blasphemy law. Two months afterwards, federal minister of minorities and the only Christian minister, Shahbaz Bhatti was shot and killed too outside his house in Islamabad. Bhatti had also called for changes to the blasphemy law.

After Asiya’s interview was published in a local daily, Taseer held a press conference with Asiya by his side, scared and meek, her face hidden with a dupatta. Taseer, whose friends considered him a liberal and outspoken man, was seen on TV placing his hand on her head, promising that he would ask the president (Asif Ali Zardari) to pardon her.

He went on to call the blasphemy law a ‘black law’ on international news platforms.

Many were angry at his defence of Asiya – most claimed that without investigation, he could not call her innocent.

But the loudest uproar was from the hardliners of the Barelvi school of thought. While the Barelvi sect has a relaxed approach to Islam than the Deobandi sect, it has historically backed the concept of the ‘Finality of Prophethood’ and has defended the country’s blasphemy laws. Rallies and movements have been spearheaded by the more radical elements within this sect.

So it was not surprising that after news of the Supreme Court’s decision spread, the radical Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (the political wing of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah or TLYR) blocked all main roads and created havoc in all cities, especially in the Punjab region, where they are the strongest.

Initially formed to support Taseer’s killer, the TLP began calling itself a political party in 2015 and claimed it was representing the “moderate” Barelvis. Since 2017, however, the TLP has used nothing but hate speech and propaganda against religious minorities, inciting violence against the state.

Also Read: Can the Murder of a Student Change Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws?

Police closed off several points in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad – along with some smaller cities in Punjab. In the morning, led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a known agitator, protestors in Islamabad blocked one of the main highways that led to its twin city of Rawalpindi.

In all cities, tires were burned and slogans against the decision were chanted.

“We demand Asiya Bibi’s head,” said one cleric. “She is accused of cursing the Holy Prophet and we have no tolerance for such people.”

But Asiya wasn’t the only target of slogans: the TLP also demanded that “all true Muslims in the army must rebel against the army chief General Bajwa and the ‘Jewish agent’ Imran Khan” and issued fatwas against the three judges who delivered the verdict, terming them wajb ul qatl or punishable by death.

The situation became so tense by the end of the first day, that Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed the nation and issued a strict warning to those who were supporting these religio-political groups.

“This small segment of the country have made me address this today,” he said. “ Do not clash with the state….”If you continue doing this… let me make it clear to you… the state will fulfil its duty [and] protect people’s properties and lives.”

Even on Thursday, major cities were deeply affected – with schools closed in Punjab – and although Sindh had not announced school holidays, attendance was thin; petrol stations were closed, entry and exit points of the cities closed or under surveillance. Commuters were advised not to use national highways or motorways, on account of the law and order situation in the country.

While the government is still trying to hold talks rather than use force as its first measure, some protestors were arrested in Taxila area for damaging public property and blocking roads.

In the past, Asiya Bibi has been one of the major points that the religio-political groups have used against the government to get their own way. Any talks with them often included two main points: Not to get rid of the blasphemy laws and to see that Asiya Bibi was hanged.

Even on October 13, after the decision for Asiya’s appeal against death sentence was reserved by the bench, the religio-political party blocked the main artery of Lahore.

A women lighting a candle at the death anniversary of Salman Taseer. Credit: Reuters

Then Punjab governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by his security guard for supporting Asiya. Credit: Reuters

Asiya’s legal struggle

Asiya was convicted of blasphemy in November 2010, after she was involved in an argument with some village women in June 2009.

But this landmark decision represents a ray of hope, for all those who belong to the progressive section of society, but mostly for the Christian community.

In 2010, a lower court, sentenced her to death after hearing arguments. She appealed and in 2014, the Lahore high court upheld her death sentence despite criticism from some segments of civil society and international media.

Because the case had become controversial and demanded more deliberation, the Supreme Court issued a stay order on her execution in July 2015.

Between being awarded death sentences and having her trials delayed, Asiya Bibi lost nine years of her life on death row – living in isolation, even inside the prison.

Her three children – Sidra, Eesha and Eeshum – were little when she was jailed, the youngest only two years old. They have grown up without their mother, facing the worst of the outside world: enduring discrimination for them and their father has become normal. Even for other Christians, having an opinion over the Asiya Bibi case was tantamount to getting themselves into trouble.

But this landmark decision represents a ray of hope, for all those who belong to the progressive section of society, but mostly for the Christian community.

Also Read: Blasphemy Law Sounds Warning Bell Not Just for Punjab But All of India

Human rights activist Peter Jacob was happy that the decision was based on merit and not on the statements of a few witnesses. He hoped that the government will provide space for a counter-narrative. “We have so much intolerance that becomes a dominant narrative at times. What we need is deep reflection on this law, so it ceases to be a source of threat for everyone.”

Human Rights Watch country director and lawyer Saroop Ijaz, seconds this. “The decision is a reason for hope and of beginning the journey to an inclusive and modern Pakistan,” he says. “This should be taken as an opportunity to reform the justice system to make it fair, equitable and prevent similar egregious miscarriages of justice. The real test is the capacity and the willingness of the government to build upon this momentum and to find the courage to stand up for its most vulnerable citizens.”

Human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir’s legal aid centre AGHS expressed hope that Asiya’s legal counsel and the judges would be given protection.

Censorship

Fast becoming a norm, the media chose to look the other way while the country was affected badly by the agitation. While news channels were running, the choice of news was more of the mundane kind. On TV, it seemed as if nothing was happening.

Part of this reason was that the court had not allowed the media to film Asiya Bibi. Security was a major reason and no one even knew where Asiya and her family were being taken, or how they were going. The public spent the day wading through rumours and never finding out if they were true or not.

Even the traffic situation was not fully covered.

State authorities ‘discouraged’ news coverage of these protestors as they were trying to cause problems for rule of law.

Some journalists felt it was too much of a clampdown while others found themselves agreeing to the fact that news coverage only motivated the protestors to feel satisfied and do more damage. “For such people all they want is to be on television,” says a well-known journalist on the condition of anonymity. “And then media tends to blow things apart as well, so it’s a win win situation for them.”

But a producer says that it is important to be as transparent as possible.

“If you do lukewarm coverage, it actually sends the message of ‘you are so repetitive’. I do not think they should be given that much importance,” he says. Fanatics also have a place on social media and there are extremist groups who work to advocate themselves, and also to keep an eye over anyone who talks against them.

Large sections of the media have in the past also acted irresponsibly. There is sensationalisation of issues; and prime-time slots have been hijacked by political talk shows, and hosts who are constantly trying to make politicians fight with each other and make fools of themselves. The media has been successful in making public believe that the politicians are malicious, immoral and irreligious.

While the media today is fighting censorship, it cannot deny that it had a large role to play in the murder of Salmaan Taseer.

A programme on a local channel with a female anchor cornered Salmaan Taseer to such an extent that she started putting words in his mouth and he became rather annoyed. Many believe she promoted the other side (religious fanatics).

“In fact I would say she has blood on her hands,” says a Karachi-based journalist. “He clearly made some points about the blasphemy law and yet she kept asking him to not be vague,” he adds.

A connection of pain

While Asiya and her immediate family suffered day in and day out, the Taseers also suffered.

Unconnected otherwise, the Taseers and Asiya’s family share a bond of grief, pain and trauma arising from the same case.

Salmaan Taseer, who belonged to the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), had given a few daring interviews, when on January 4, 2011 – only a few months after Asiya’s conviction – his own body guard, Mumtaz Qadri, also belonging to the Barelvi sect, shot him to death while he was getting into a car. Qadri was immediately arrested and soon imprisoned, but extremist elements within the lawyer community and some clerics held him in high regard, even showering him with petals when he first came to court.

For the liberal segments of society, Qadri soon became a symbol of radical Islam – an image that they were trying hard to remove by dispelling thoughts that Islam contributed to such vigilante justice.

Religious scholars such as Javed Ghamidi, who himself had to flee the country, said no one had any business in making decisions regarding what the other’s intentions were regarding blasphemy.

As Salman Taseer’s family was still reeling from his death, his son Shahbaz became a Taliban target. In August 2011, he was abducted from the main road of a posh locality.

Some clerics have labelled Imran Khan a “Jewish agent”. Credit: Reuters

In February 2016, Qadri was hanged and many liberals celebrated, although without Asiya or Shahbaz’s freedom, it remained bitter sweet.

One month later, Shahbaz who had been missing since five years after being traded by the Taliban to the Uzbek’s and then back again, miraculously escaped.

For the Taseer family, it was a blessing; now for the Noreen family, Asiya’s release serves the same kind of relief, despite the nine years gone to waste.

Meanwhile, the common citizen has a lot to say.

“I want to know where these mullahs were when little girls in Kasur were being raped and killed?” asks Faisal, a driver. “They didn’t make a sound then, but when this case is mentioned, they start raising hell.”

“In the end it’s all political,” says Amna, a schoolteacher. “Either they will blame Imran Khan’s government, or Nawaz Sharif. It is the common people who will end up suffering from blocked roads,” she adds.

“We finally defeated Mumtaz Qadri,” says Muhammad Iqbal, a shopkeeper. “Let’s hope we defeat all the [TLD chairman] Khadim Rizvis as well.”

Xari Jalil is veteran journalist who reports from Karachi and Lahore. Her areas of interest include crime, society and art. She tweets at @xarijalil.

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