Asia Bibi’s case gained national prominence because of brave, pluralist politician like Salman Taseer who served as the 26th Governor of Punjab from 2008 until his assassination in 2011. He was a successful businessman and a liberal politician, who remained a member of the Pakistan Peoples Party. He gave interviews saying that he had sought a presidential pardon for a Christian mother of five Asia Bibi and appeared on national television with her. She was alleged to have insulted the Holy Prophet (SAW) and trailed without sufficient legal proofs.
In the eyes of the religious masses in Pakistan, stirred by clerics, Taseer was not viewed as the governor of Punjab coming to the aid of a woman from a religious minority community, who, whatever her alleged crime, did not deserve to be killed by the state or the mob.
Instead, he was seen as a traitor. In Urdu media outlets, mosque sermons and in mass rallies, Asia Bibi’s case became a national symbol of defiance and asserting Muslim supremacy over ‘the other’. Christianity symbolised the West, the US drone attacks, and Taseer was part of the English-speaking elite who were in cahoots with ‘the enemy’.
Taseer’s public support for a woman who was blamed to have insulted the Holy Prophet (SAW) was ample evidence, in their minds, of this global conspiracy against Islam. The incitation by these ‘saviours of Islam’ resulted in his killing by his own official guard. The killer was executed, but has become a cult hero with a large shrine dedicated to him on the outskirts of Islamabad. No other politician or even the lower judiciary ever dared to give her the right to fair trial after the demise of fearless Salman Taseer. Supporters of Taseer’s killers were ‘allowed’ to register a political party, besieging Islamabad in November 2017, campaigning to preserve the blasphemy laws, and running for July 25, general elections which gathered them around two million votes.
The trial stems from an argument Asia Bibi, whose full name is Asia Noreen, had with a group of women in June 2009. They were harvesting fruit when a row broke out about a bucket of water. The women said that because she had used a cup, they could no longer touch it, as her faith had made it unclean. Prosecutors alleged that in the row which followed, the women said Asia Bibi should convert to Islam and that she made three offensive comments about the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in response. 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 Bibi remained under trial and solitary confinement for 8 long years but yesterday the Supreme Court of Pakistan overturned the death sentence issued by Lahore High Court. The ruling was read out by the Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, said Asia Bibi could walk free from jail, immediately if not wanted in connection with any other case. She was not in court to hear the ruling, but reacted to the verdict from prison with apparent disbelief. The judges said the prosecution had ‘categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt’. The case was based on flimsy evidence, they said, and proper procedures had not been followed. The alleged confession was delivered in front of a crowd ‘threatening to kill her’.
The ruling heavily referenced the Holy Quran and Islamic history. It ended with a quote from the Hadith, the collected sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), which calls for non-Muslims to be treated kindly.The judgement lastly stated that “blasphemy is a serious offence but the insult of the appellant’s religion and religious sensibilities by the complainant party and then mixing truth with falsehood in the name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was also not short of being blasphemous. It is ironical that in the Arabic language the appellant’s name Asia means ‘sinful’ but in the circumstances of the present case she appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Leare, ‘more sinned against than sinning’.
For what has been discussed above a conclusion is inescapable and irresistible that the prosecution had failed to prove its case against the appellant beyond reasonable doubt. This appeal is, therefore, allowed, the conviction and sentence of the appellant recorded and upheld by the courts below are set aside and she is acquitted of the charge by extending the benefit of doubt to her”. The court delivered its verdict quickly, no doubt aware of the sensitivity of the case and the danger of a violent reaction to it. Even after she is freed, the legacy of her case will continue.
Laws enacted by the British Raj in 1860, made it a crime to disturb a religious assembly, trespass on burial grounds, insult religious beliefs or intentionally destroy or defile a place or an object of worship, punishable by up to 10 years in jail. Several more clauses were added in the 1980s by Pakistan’s military ruler Gen Ziaul Haq like ‘up to three years in jail for derogatory remarks against Islamic personages’, life imprisonment for ‘wilful’ desecration of the Quran, ‘death, or imprisonment for life’ for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), who paved the way for religious chauvinists to spread hatreds, incite and provoke violence and kill people in the name of religion and love for the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAW).
As expected, the ruling has set off violent protests by hardliners who support strong blasphemy laws. Demonstrations against the verdict are being held across the country and the Prime Minister Khan in his address to the nation in the aftermath of provoked protests sharply criticised the language used by a ‘small segment’ in reaction to the verdict. He also criticised the protests for blocking roads and hampering people’s livelihood and warned them of dire consequences if they do not quit ‘vandalism’. It is high time we need to understand that the presence of right wingers and self-appointed warders of religion who have emptied the Divine from divinity and stands antithetical to everything that God stands, for are actually the biggest threat. The ruthlessness of these ‘brainless saviours of Islam’ have led Pakistan into its nuclear winter and far from a Pakistani spring being the antidote, an upheaval of great proportions may be required to counter this growing threat to the country’s survival.
(The writer is PhD Political Science, civil servant based in Islamabad. He also hold degrees in Islamic Law & Sharia’. His area of Specialisation is Political Development and Social Change. He can be followed on twitter @zafarkhansafadar)