The Blasphemy Test

Pakistan’s apex court has shown guts by acquitting Asia Bibi despite clerics’ anger. A governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, had died at the hands of his own security guard while defending Bibi, who he thought had been framed.

Written by Khaled Ahmed | Published: November 10, 2018 1:19:29 am
Asia Bibi was released from the prison in the city of Multan. (Reuters/File) Asia Bibi was released from the prison in the city of Multan. (Reuters/File)

Pakistan has already suffered from the collective death wish of anti-Ahmadi laws. Now it has another — the minimum punishment of death for blasphemy. On October 31, the Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted a young Christian mother of three, Asia Bibi, of blasphemy, earlier sentenced to death by a district court and supported by the high court. The brave judges who let Bibi go were Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel, on an appeal pending with them since 2017. Bibi had rotted in a death cell for eight years.

It was a gutsy decision and the world was pleasantly surprised. UN Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq welcomed the verdict and the Pope must have heaved a sigh of relief as his earlier entreaties had fallen on deaf ears in Pakistan. A governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, had died at the hands of his own security guard while defending Bibi, who he thought had been framed.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, whose own rise as a leader came after his rival Nawaz Sharif got caught up in a police encounter in Lahore in which some clerics and their followers were killed, faced the fallout of the post-acquittal clerical wrath. The clerics of the Barelvi variety led by Muhammad Afzal Qadri and Khadim Rizvi of the Labbaik Movement had hit the streets of Lahore and barricaded all the major crossroads, cursing the judges and calling for their death, asking subalterns in the army to kill the army chief General Qamar Bajwa — “because he must have told the judges to acquit the blasphemer” — and depose Prime Minister Imran Khan because he was “the son of a Jew”.

On November 1, all the schools of Pakistan were ordered shut and the police was out in the streets. In a kind of national emergency, PM Khan addressed the nation and warned the clerics that he would come down on them hard.

Last time the same Labbaik Party hooligans besieged Islamabad to punish Khan’s rival Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the police got beaten and the army actually distributed banknotes among the soldiers of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Now, the army chief himself was targeted — the leader of the mob called him a heretic Ahmadi and asked non-Ahmadi officers to kill him.

Lawyer Saiful Mulook, who defended Asia Bibi at the Supreme Court, said he could be killed by the clerics but added: “The verdict has shown that the poor, the minorities and the lowest segments of society can get justice in this country despite its shortcomings.” It was the poor masses wedded to the ideology of Pakistan and enslaved by the clergy who were out in the streets baying for the blood of those who had let a “blaspheming” Asia off the hook.

Time and again, Pakistan has allowed so-called “blasphemers” to be dragged to court and sentenced to death without proper evidence. The blasphemy law has been wickedly framed to entrap, as it criminalises “gesture and innuendo” equally with speech. The incident with Asia Bibi took place in Sheikhupura, not far from Lahore and the Supreme Court — hearing the case after a delay of more than a year — was quick to find that it was a frame-up involving some poor women and a cleric who claimed that Bibi had confessed to abusing the Prophet to him.

The court made short shrift of the case after discovering that blasphemy was registered without proper official approval as required under law and that the imam who took Asia Bibi’s “confession” was not even an eye-witness. To make the case look ominously like an international conspiracy, a panchayat of “a thousand believers” was held in a house before reporting to the police station that she was much more than a just a poor Christian. The FIR stated that she was a Christian preacher.

What the Supreme Court has done is unprecedented: It has stood up for a poor mother of three trapped in a collective lust for violence. No one could have rescued her, not the president with a pardon, not the prime minister with guts to stand by the targeted Christian community. The Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PMLQ) that partners the ruling Tehreek-e-Insaf will probably stand behind the roused clerics. Reported in Jang (November 24, 2010), top leader of PMLQ Chaudhry Shujaat — always the first to bend the knee to Pakistan’s clergy — said that pardon given to the blasphemy law victim Asia Bibi would be wrong and would entail violent reaction.

The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan

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