Acquittal of Asia Bibi

  • And challenges ahead

Asia Bibi is finally a free woman after spending eight long years in Pakistani gallows in a persistent state of despondency and no hope of her release; given the threats from the extremist groups and flaws in the criminal justice system.

Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman and a mother of five, who was sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy charges in 2010, got into a dispute with her Muslim colleagues who objected her to drinking water from a communal place. According to eye witnesses, the only crime of Asia bibi was to dip her glass in the bucket of drinking water. Because of deep prejudice against Christian community, it was immediately claimed that the water was now unclean. Asis Bibi, like any other person who experiences such hatred because of their religious beliefs, only tried to defend her and was not apologetic. This enraged the local women and they accused her of committing blasphemy. Her accusers made contradictory statements in court and there was never sufficient evidence to prove accusations of blasphemy but enormous pressure from extremist groups arguably contributed towards her receiving the death sentence.

It was just another example of blasphemy law exploitation to settle a personal score. Former governor Punjab Salman Taseer took a firm stand and raised objections on the procedural flaws of this law and the manner it had been used to target minorities. In an interview, he made his position quite clear by making the following statements:

“The thing I find disturbing is that if you examine the cases of the hundreds tried under this law, you have to ask how many of them are well-to-do? Why is it that only the poor and defenceless are targeted? How come over 50 percent of them are Christians when they form less than two percent of the country’s population. This points clearly to the fact that the law is misused to target minorities.”

“What I find particularly distasteful is that when you speak of amendment, people assume you condone the crime. If I am against the death sentence, it does not mean I condone murder.”

Looking at majority of the blasphemy cases in Pakistan, one completely endorses the above statements, but religious fanatics accused him of blasphemy too consequently killing him in cold blood in Islamabad by one of the government employed body guards.

Though tragic, these sorts of attacks against the many moderate voices in Pakistan have arguably helped in isolating the extremists

Likewise, the minorities’ minister of that time, Shahbaz Bhatti, took a similar stance and insisted that the blasphemy laws were being misused. Bhatti was killed in Islamabad at a point-black range 25 times, leaving him dead at the scene. His killers flung some leaflets on the road after killing him blaming the government for making an ‘infidel Christian’ head of the blasphemy laws review committee.

The blasphemy laws in Pakistan have long been exploited against the weak and vulnerable. An estimated 1,274 people were charged under the blasphemy laws between 1986 and 2010 — while 51 were brutally targeted and murdered before their respective trials. Do these figures not suggest we have legal loopholes that need to be addressed in order to protect minorities? Shall we keep on listening to the distorted versions of deluded statements from ignorant fanatics who popularise the idea that an attempt to improvise blasphemy laws is equivalent to committing blasphemy? Are we not civilised enough to initiate a debate that looks at the elements of this law being exploited by powerful elites to maintain their fear and control over poor and marginalised communities?

Though tragic, these sorts of attacks against the many moderate voices in Pakistan have arguably helped in isolating the extremists and begun to shape public opinion against them. Although extremist elements are gaining ground in the Pakistani society, they have failed to win the hearts and minds of the majority of the Pakistanis, who can increasingly see them for what they are. This recognition of the very real threat of extremism – for all Pakistanis – provides a powerful opportunity to enhance the coordination of all these moderate voices, and to counter the extremist narratives at various levels in society, in order to foster community cohesion and interfaith harmony.

Finally, although the acquittal of Asia Bibi is a huge success and a ray of hope for the oppressed communities in Pakistan but the fact that Asia Bibi and her family are fleeing the country because of security threats to their lives reflects that Pakistan still has a long way to go to deal with violent extremism. PM Imran Khan’s strong stance against religious fanatics protesting and disrupting law and order of the country after the Supreme Court’s decision has been widely applauded by Pakistanis. The judgment itself shattered fears surrounding blasphemy laws cases. However, the grave challenges of potential exploitation of blasphemy laws will always be a threat to poor and vulnerable communities until the government runs a national campaign to raise awareness around their serious implications and move towards their procedural reforms.