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Even If Acquitted, Pakistani Blasphemy Suspect Is In Mortal Danger

  • Majeed Babar
  • Charles Recknagel

The daughter and wife of the governor of Punjab Province speak to Aasia Bibi (right), who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy

The daughter and wife of the governor of Punjab Province speak to Aasia Bibi (right), who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy

A 45-year-old Catholic mother of two has been sentenced to death in Pakistan for blasphemy.

But the real danger Aasia Bibi faces may not come from her court case. That is because, to date, although some have been sentenced to death, no one has ever been executed in Pakistan for blasphemy.

Instead, the danger is that she will be killed if she is freed. And for that there are ample precedents.

In July, two Christian brothers accused of writing a blasphemous pamphlet critical of the Prophet Muhammad were shot dead within the premises of a court in Punjab. One of the brothers was a pastor. That happened as they exited a court hearing in Faisalabad city, where hundreds of protesters had demanded they be sentenced to death.

Those same crowds of protestors have gathered in Bibi's case like ominous storm clouds hovering over the proceedings.

Angry Demonstrations

Last week, an Islamic party Jamat-e-Islami held a demonstration outside a mosque in Karachi after Friday prayers. The protesters demanded that Bibi be hanged as sentenced. On December 3, a hard-line cleric offered a $5,800 reward for anyone who killed Bibi.

Other groups have held other demonstrations, including the banned charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which the United Nations has blacklisted as a terrorist organization. It demonstrated in the streets of Lahore, where Punjab's high court must confirm Bibi's November 8 death sentence before it can be carried out.

The demonstrations have the support of many Islamic clerics, who see blasphemy as attacking the very heart of Pakistan's Muslim identity. As one Islamic scholar, Dr. Qasim Mahmood told RFE/'RL's Radio Mashaal: "The most sacred name is that of Allah and after that it is Muhammad, peace be upon him, and if somebody talks low about them, the Islamic clerics in Pakistan already describe the details of the punishment for those who commit blasphemy, and now it's the law of the land in Pakistan that they have to be awarded the death sentence."

Islamic political parties and militant groups have seized upon the blasphemy case to cast themselves yet again as defenders of religion and show their street power. But the blame for the intensity of the issue lies with the blasphemy laws themselves and the willingness of lower courts to enforce them mercilessly.

The case of Bibi, the first woman ever to be convicted under Pakistan's blasphemy laws, provides a textbook example.

In June 2009, a group of her co-workers accused Bibi of blaspheming Islam as the group worked in the fields around her home village in Nankana district, about 70 kilometers from Lahore.

The trouble began on a searing hot day as she harvested the berry-sized fruit Grewia Asiatica, also known as falsa, which is used throughout the region as a flavor for juices and sorbets.

She had forgotten to bring her own water pitcher so she drank a glass of water from a pitcher belonging to her female Muslim co-workers -- an act which some considered defiling.

Bibi could not pacify her Muslim co-workers despite saying sorry. The co-workers asked her to convert to Islam and she refused and left the scene with tears rolling down her cheeks.

Taking his cue from three of the Muslim women, a prayer leader of a local mosque, Qari Muhammad Salam, filed a case against Bibi in the district court. From there the accusations against her mounted.

According to the lower court's verdict, obtained by RFE/RL, witnesses against her during the proceedings stated she had said the Koran is fake and "your prophet remained in bed for one month before his death because he had insects in his mouth and ears."

She also allegedly said the Prophet Muhammad had married his wife, Khadija, who was wealthy, "just for money" and after stealing from her kicked her out of the house.

Judge Naveed Iqbal, in sentencing her to death, "totally ruled out" any chance that Bibi was falsely implicated and said there were "no mitigating circumstances." Speaking about why the judge passed a death sentence, Secretary-General of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan I.A. Rehman told Mashaal Radio: "In Pakistan, mullahs are stronger then the courts, and due to fear the lower courts can't let anybody go free because the lower courts always feel under threat and pressure from the mullahs."

Now, as the case has gone to the provincial high court in Lahore, it presents the Pakistan government with a major dilemma. Human rights groups in Pakistan and abroad are incensed by the case and hard-liners' implicit threats to carry out the execution themselves if necessary.
Christians are a minority in Pakistan

Asim Malik, spokesman for Aurat Foundation, a women's-rights watchdog in Pakistan which is closely watching the case, says Bibi has already had to suffer harsh conditions because of the danger from hard-liners.

"For the past year, Aasia Bibi, who is 45 years old, has been kept in isolation by the police because of the fear that somebody will end her life," Malik said.

Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI has called for the release of Bibi, and political pressure has been growing for her pardon.


So far, the government in Islamabad and conservatives appear locked in a showdown over the case.

Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti has presented a report to President Asif Ali Zardari recommending a pardon for Bibi. The report concluded that "the blasphemy against Asia Bibi has been registered on grounds of personal enmity."

But conservative lawyers have petitioned the Lahore High Court this week not to let Zardari to use his office to pardon Bibi so long as the case is pending in the courts.

The only certainty is that the blasphemy law itself is never likely to be repealed. Minority Affairs Minister Bhatti, who is a Christian, told Reuters on November 23 that a repeal "is not being considered, though we are considering changing it so that misuse of the law should be stopped."

But the pernicious effects of the blasphemy laws -- and the threat they present not just to victims, but to the rule of law in Pakistan -- run too deep to be mitigated by simply guarding against misuse.

Since the controversial blasphemy laws were introduced by then-dictator General Zia-ul- Huq in 1980, at least 1,035 men and women, including Muslims, Ahmadis, Christians, and Hindus have been accused, although all the accusations were dropped when the cases reached the higher courts.

Some have languished in jail for years awaiting a final resolution of their case. Waji ul-Hassan, a Christian, has been on death row since 2002.

Perhaps worse still, the laws have helped to legitimize the physical attacks, social stigmatization, forced conversion, and continued institutional degradation that characterize the position of religious minorities in Pakistan.

Around 3 percent of Pakistan's population of about 170 million is estimated to be non-Muslim, and most of those are Christian or Hindu. Both communities are marginalized economically as well as socially, with both men and women commonly limited to working as street sweepers or in other odd jobs.

The blasphemy laws also encourage a sense of majority power, even mob rule, over religious minorities that the Pakistani state cannot assure the safety of those accused of blasphemy even if they are acquitted. That is particularly true in Punjab, which is home to most of Pakistan's militant groups and where most of the attacks on Christians have taken place.

In August 2009, eight members of a Christian family died when hundreds of armed supporters of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an outlawed Islamic militant group, burned dozens of Christian homes in the village of Gojra in Punjab. That followed allegations that a copy of the Koran had been defiled.

Given this atmosphere, it may be no surprise that most of those who have been acquitted of blasphemy charges have opted to seek asylum in other countries rather than return to their homes. If Bibi is finally acquitted, she can be expected to do the same.

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