Opinion: Asia Bibi exposes a failing Pakistani state

Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, has been released from prison. But the fact that she must leave Pakistan lest she be killed shows the state is being controlled by Islamists, says DW's Shamil Shams.
Shamil Shams
Shamil Shams

The Pakistani state took nearly 10 years away from Asia Bibi. Born in 1971, she has spent the prime of her life in jail. Bibi, an impoverished mother of five, was incarcerated for insulting Islam in 2009, and sentenced to death in 2010.

Law and Justice | 08.11.2018

In Pakistan, it only takes a mere accusation, a slight assertion, to put someone behind bars on blasphemy charges. At last, after a long and arduous legal battle lasting nearly a decade, Pakistan's top court acquitted Bibi on October 31. The verdict was hailed by liberals and rights activists all over the world.

The logical outcome of the Supreme Court's decision would have been Bibi's immediate freedom. But authorities were forced to keep her in prison for over a week. Hard-line Islamist groups are demanding her death, and they have taken to the streets in protest of the court's ruling.

DW's Shamil Shams

No blasphemer has the right to live, they chant, while setting cars and shops on fire in many cities. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) group says the judges who acquitted Bibi must be killed.

They're also urging army officials who are loyal to the Islamist narrative to revolt against the incumbent army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Read more: Pakistan blasphemy case: Asia Bibi's husband fears for wife's safety

In spite of this serious challenge to its authority, Pakistan's government has not met the Islamist protesters with an iron fist. Prime Minister Imran Khan's government caved in to extremists and agreed to take legal measures barring Bibi from traveling abroad.

Read more: Blasphemy agreement: Is Pakistan ruled by Islamists?

Pakistani authorities justified their agreement with the TLP, arguing they wanted to avoid more violence on the streets. It's possible they were only buying more time to deal with the situation. On Wednesday evening, news broke that Bibi had finally been released from prison and could potentially soon be taken out of the country to safety.

A failure of law

Bibi's heart-wrenching ordeal has proven that blasphemy remains a sensitive issue in Pakistan and, more importantly, the blasphemy laws in place since the 1980s cannot be challenged.

Read more: Blasphemy allegations – the new way of muzzling free speech in South Asia

Related Subjects

Opposing these laws, or demanding amendments to them, would be considered sacrilegious in Pakistan. Two prominent politicians were killed in 2011 for supporting Bibi and calling for the blasphemy laws to be reviewed.

While Bibi's acquittal by the Supreme Court was a positive step, the legal foundation on which the judges issued their verdict is problematic. They ruled that Bibi was released due to lack of evidence. The ruling doesn't set a strong legal precedence, as we know how easy it can be to fabricate evidence in countries like Pakistan.

Read more: Opinion: Bibi verdict avoids Pakistan's blasphemy problem

Right now Pakistani lawmakers need to sit together and review the country's controversial Islamic-rooted legal system. I don't expect the state – of which the military is the most powerful component – to change its overall Islamic narrative that breeds extremism in the country. It obviously serves the country's ruling classes to perpetuate animosity towards India, while the Pakistani military gets the lion's share of the country's budget. 

But recent events should be a wake-up call for Pakistani politicians, generals and the judiciary that legal change – if not a total overhaul of the state – is necessary. If the Pakistani government and judiciary won't undertake these measures, the state could lose its authority in the coming years, and Pakistan would be run by religious extremists from the streets.

Read more: Pakistan: Asia Bibi and the countless victims of blasphemy laws

The state can't protect itself

However, it looks like the Pakistani state has already lost most of its authority. The fact that Bibi, after being proven innocent by the highest court in the country, could not leave jail lest she be murdered by hard-liners, shows Pakistan is on the way to becoming a failed state. 

Currently, there is speculation that Bibi will soon be taken out of the country, or has already been flown out. But why can't Bibi stay in Pakistan as a free citizen? Why can't she move freely inside her own country? Why is it necessary that she escape to the West? Can Pakistan function like a normal state? I think it is high time that Pakistani authorities, both civilian and military, change the dangerous course they have taken since the 1980s. 

The obsession to carve "strategic depth" in Afghanistan to counter regional rival India has emaciated the Pakistani state to an extent that even the country's powerful military establishment has to bow down to jihadist proxies.

Read more: Pakistani minister: Asia Bibi could be barred from leaving the country

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

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.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

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.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

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.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

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.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

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.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

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.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

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.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

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.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

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.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

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.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

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.