Asia Bibi: Pakistan top court hears blasphemy appeal amid Islamist threats

The Pakistani-Christian woman has been languishing in prison since 2009 on blasphemy allegations. Her case has attracted attention from the Vatican as well as international rights groups demanding her release.

On Monday, Pakistan's Supreme Court began the hearing of Asia Bibi's final appeal against her 2010 death penalty.

Human Rights | 13.10.2016

The three-judge bench said it has reserved the verdict on the appeal, however the judges did not say when they will announce it.

If the top court upholds her death sentence, the only recourse for the 53-year-old would be to appeal to the country's president for clemency.

In 2014, her death sentence was upheld by the Lahore High Court. Rights group Amnesty International dubbed the verdict a "grave injustice."

Religious extremists in Pakistan, particularly the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) group, have warned the authorities against reversing the blasphemy verdict.

"If there is any attempt to hand her [Bibi] over to a foreign country, there will be terrible consequences," TLP said in a statement.

Read more: Opinion: Pakistan's ignominious surrender to Islamists

Society

A dispute over water

In 2009, Asia Bibi was accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad while she was working in a field in Punjab's Sheikhupura district. The Muslim women who were working with Bibi objected to her fetching water, saying that as a non-Muslim she was not allowed to touch the water bowl. The women then complained to a local cleric and leveled blasphemy charges against Bibi.

Society

A sensitive matter

According to local media, the argument in the field led to a mob attack on Bibi's house. Later, police took Bibi into custody and launched an investigation into the blasphemy accusations. Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Pakistan, where 97 percent of the population is Muslim.

Society

Controversial law

The blasphemy law was introduced by General Zia-ul-Haq, a military dictator, in the 1980s. Activists say they are often implemented in cases that have little to do with blasphemy and are used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas. Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis — a minority Islamic sect — are often victimized as a result.

Society

The Pakistani state vs. Bibi

In 2010, a lower court convicted Bibi of blasphemy. Although the defense lawyer argued that the blasphemy allegations were made to settle personal scores, the court sentenced Bibi to death by hanging. Bibi's family has been living under constant fear since 2010. Her husband, Ashiq Masih (R), says he has been fighting a battle for his wife's freedom ever since.

Society

Assassination of critics

In 2010, Salman Taseer (R), the then governor of Punjab province, backed Bibi and demanded amendments in the blasphemy laws. Taseer's anti-blasphemy law position angered extremists. In 2011, Taseer was gunned down by his own bodyguard in Islamabad. The same year, Shahbaz Bhatti, the then minister for minorities and a prominent blasphemy law critic, was also assassinated by unidentified gunmen.

Society

Celebration of killings

After Taseer's murder, Qadri became a hero for Pakistani Islamists. Qadri was showered with rose petals by right-wing groups as he was taken to jail by the authorities. Qadri was sent to the gallows in 2016. Thousands of people – mostly supporters of Islamic groups – attended Qadri's funeral. Local media reported that Qadri's supporters built a shrine after his death to honor him.

Society

Fear in the judicial community

After the killings of blasphemy law critics, many lawyers refused to take up Bibi's case in the higher courts. In 2014, the Lahore High Court upheld her death sentence. Pakistan's top court, the Supreme Court, was scheduled to hear Bibi's appeal against the conviction in 2016, but one judge refused to be a part of the judicial bench, citing personal reasons.

Society

Victims of blasphemy law

According to the American Centre for Law and Justice, at least 40 Pakistanis were sentenced to death on blasphemy charges in 2016. The law is often used to target religious minorities and secular Muslims. Although there hasn't been any legal execution under the blasphemy law, there have been instances where angry mobs have lynched alleged blasphemers.

Society

Persecution of religious minorities

Pakistan's Christians and other religious minorities complain of legal and social discrimination in their country. In the past few years, many Christians and Hindus have been brutally murdered over unproven blasphemy allegations.

Society

Threats from Islamists

Religious extremists in Pakistan, particularly the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) group, have warned the authorities against reversing Bibi's blasphemy verdict. The country's Christian minority fears that if the judges decide to reverse the death sentence, they could face a violent backlash from the country's hardline Islamic groups.

Society

International support for Bibi

Rights groups and Western governments demand a fair trial in Bibi's case. In 2015, Bibi's daughter met with Pope Francis, who offered prayers for her mother at the Vatican. In 2014, Amnesty International dubbed the Lahore High Court's verdict against Bibi a "grave injustice." The American Centre for Law and Justice also condemned Bibi's sentence and urged Islamabad to protect religious minorities.

Pakistan's populist Prime Minister Imran Khan, who came to power in August, vowed to defend the country's controversial blasphemy laws during his election campaign earlier this year.

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan, where 97 percent of the population is Muslim, were introduced by the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. But activists say they are often implemented in cases that have little to do with blasphemy and are used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas. Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis — a minority Islamic sect — are often victimized as a result.

Bibi, a mother of five, was arrested in June, 2009, after her neighbors complained that she had made derogatory remarks about Islam's prophet, Muhammad. A year later, Bibi was sentenced to death under the blasphemy laws despite strong opposition from national and international human rights groups.

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But Saif-ul-Malook, Bibi's lawyer, believes that if the appeal is heard on merit, Bibi would be released.

"The incident happened on June 14, 2009, but the case was registered on June 19, 2009. The accused did not get the benefit of doubt. Legally, it is a weak case," Malook told DW, adding that witness statements were contradictory. 

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Pakistan under pressure to repeal blasphemy laws

A politically charged issue

Although human rights activists are not optimistic that the Supreme Court would overturn Bibi's death sentence, the country's Christian minority fears that if the judges do chose to decide otherwise, they could face a violent backlash from the country's hardline Islamic groups.

"Extremists cannot target judges because of the heavy security around them, but lawyers are more vulnerable to their attacks," Malook said.

"Bibi's possible release could trigger protests and demonstrations across the country," Malook added.

In a video statement, Pir Afzal Qadri, a radical cleric, warned the government, military generals and the judges against releasing Bibi.

"Our people will be present during the court hearing [on Monday]. We will not accept the suspension of the sentence," Pir Ejaz Shah of the TLP told DW.

Experts say that Bibi's case is no longer only religious; it has become a politically charged issue in the past few years.

A few months after Bibi's conviction, Salman Taseer, a former governor of the central Punjab province, was murdered by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. Qadri shot Taseer 28 times in broad daylight in Islamabad on January 4, 2011, and was sentenced to death in October the same year.

Qadri showed no remorse over the killing. He said he had murdered the former governor for his efforts to amend the country's blasphemy laws and his support for Bibi. Qadri was showered with rose petals by right-wing groups as he was taken to jail by the authorities. Subsequently, some mosques were named after him, and huge portraits of him were erected across the country.

But Qadri was sent to the gallows in 2016, and his supporters believe that Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government executed him under international pressure. So if the Supreme Court reverses the death sentence now, the right-wing parties and groups are likely to take to the streets. They fear that any concession to Bibi, or any other blasphemy victim, might lead to amendments in the Islamic laws and open a door to the secularization of Pakistan.

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Christians living in fear in Pakistan

Persecution of religious minorities

Bibi's family has been living under constant fear since 2010. The Christian woman's husband, Ashiq Masih, has been fighting a desperate battle for the life and freedom of his wife ever since.

"We are living a life on the run" Masih told DW. "Our lives are being threatened. We receive death threats constantly and are moving from one place to another – and we try to support each other." 

"I spent almost 45 years of my life in my native village. I had many friends there. But now I do not want to go back," he said, adding that his family's life has been destroyed. 

Masih is also scared. He is afraid of being recognized as Asia Bibi's husband in public. "This is why I almost never speak with Muslims. I am frightened that they know who I am."

Pakistan's Christians and other religious minorities complain of legal and social discrimination in their country. In the past few years, many Christians and Hindus have been brutally murdered over unproven blasphemy allegations.

In one case, a young Christian girl with Down syndrome was accused in August 2012 of burning pages upon which verses of the Koran were inscribed. Rimsha Masih was taken into police custody and only released months later, when charges were dropped. The case caused an uproar in her home town and beyond and sparked riots and violence against Christians in the region. In 2013, she and her family relocated to Canada.

In 2014, a Christian couple was beaten to death for allegedly desecrating a copy of the Koran. Their bodies were subsequently burned in a brick kiln.

In September last year, a Christian man in Pakistan was sentenced to death for sharing "blasphemous" material on WhatsApp.

Read more: Uproar in Pakistan over 'torture and sexual abuse' of Christian youths

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Presidential pardon for Pakistan's Asia Bibi 'unlikely'

Support for Bibi

The Human Right Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), an independent rights group, lashed out at the government for not acting against Islamists that have unleashed a hate campaign against Christians.

"It is unfortunate that the government has not taken any action against the extremist groups that are active on social media. The government's inaction has actually emboldened them. The incumbent government is doing what the past governments did – appeasing the right wing groups," Mehdi Hassan, the HRCP chairman, told DW.

International rights groups and Western governments demand a fair trial in Bibi's case. In 2015, Bibi's daughter met with Pope Francis, who offered prayers for her mother at the Vatican.

In a 2014 interview with DW, Dr. Clare Amos, a coordinator for the Geneva-based World Council of Churches' inter-religious dialogue and cooperation program, said that Bibi's plight should not be ignored, and that Pakistan's blasphemy laws should be amended to make sure that they are not applied in cases of personal disputes.