Pakistan: Asia Bibi and the countless victims of blasphemy laws

A Pakistani minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated in 2011 for supporting Asia Bibi, a Christian accused of blasphemy. Bhatti's brother told DW that he is concerned about the safety of Christians in Pakistan.

The case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who was acquitted in a blasphemy trial on October 31, has not only made international headlines, it has also put a spotlight on Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws.

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

Hundreds of victims of blasphemy charges have been languishing in Pakistani jails for years. Many people have been lynched by angry mobs, or assassinated, on allegations of insulting Islam or its Prophet Muhammad.

In 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti spoke out against Bibi's death sentence

Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, two prominent politicians who chose to support Bibi when she was sentenced to death by a Pakistani court in 2010, were killed by Islamists in 2011.

Taseer was the governor of Punjab province at the time. Bhatti – a Pakistani Christian – was the country's minister for religious minorities. Both liberal politicians had openly campaigned to reform Pakistan's blasphemy law.

Blasphemy, or the insult of Prophet Muhammad, is a sensitive topic in the South Asian country, where 97 percent of the 180 million people are Muslims.

Rights activists continually demand reform of blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.

Activists say the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas. Religious minorities often complain about widespread social and religious discrimination in Pakistan.

Read more: Asia Bibi lawyer seeks asylum in the Netherlands

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.

Bibi's plight

Despite her acquittal by the Supreme Court in a blasphemy appeal case last week, Bibi is still in detention.

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Her husband, Ashiq Masih, told DW that his wife's life is in danger and has appealed to US President Donald Trump for asylum, along with asking British Prime Minister Theresa May and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to help the family exit the country.

Following Bibi's acquittal, the hard-line Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) party took to the streets and forced the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan to strike a deal to end the protest.

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

According to the deal, the government will not block a review petition for the acquittal and will take measures to ban Bibi from traveling abroad.

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

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

Peter Bhatti: 'We aren't satisfied with the handling of Shahbaz Bhatti's case'

In an interview with DW, Shahbaz Bhatti's brother, Peter Bhatti, who is a rights activist based in Canada, demands justice for both Bibi and his brother.

DW: What impact will the Supreme Court's verdict have on the overall situation of Pakistani Christians?

Peter Bhatti: The Supreme Court's historic verdict came as a great relief for Pakistani Christians and all those indicted under false blasphemy charges. The judgment was long overdue, but at the same time we understand it is a sensitive issue.

Despite this favorable verdict, we are still concerned about the safety of Christians in Pakistan. Mobs can attack Christians or churches anytime.

Have your brother's killers been brought to justice?

No, we aren't satisfied with the handling of Shahbaz Bhatti's case. We demand that the government arrests Bhatti's killers, who are still at large.

The authorities have not supported us. The extremists who openly claimed responsibility for Bhatti's murder, threatened us into not going to court. Due to these threats, we cannot pursue a legal course in Pakistan.

We are, however, encouraged by Bibi's acquittal, and I will continue to demand justice for my brother.

In the aftermath of the Islamist TLP protests, do you think Prime Minister Khan's government will be able to provide security to Bibi?

This violent reaction to the acquittal verdict was predictable. But I don't think the government will block Bibi's release to appease religious extremists.

I'm sure the government must have gauged the implications of the Bibi judgment prior to its announcement. I am confident that the verdict won't be overturned.

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But Islamists want Bibi's name to be placed on the Exit Control List, or the no-fly list ...

Every Pakistani citizen has the right to oppose a judicial ruling. Those who are against Bibi's acquittal verdict should use legal channels to bar Bibi's travel abroad. But it is up to the Supreme Court to make a decision on the review petition. For now, there is no legal justification to ban Bibi from leaving Pakistan, because she is not a criminal.

If Bibi leaves the country, Christians can face a violent backlash from Islamists as a result ...

Protecting Bibi and her family is the responsibility of the government. It is true that Bibi is not safe in Pakistan. But I am confident that the government is capable of dealing with this situation.

Will it all lead to some changes to the controversial blasphemy laws?

Religious extremism is on the rise in Pakistan. I think the incumbent government is trying to counter it by taking one step at a time, so we must not expect drastic measures. But Bibi's acquittal is a milestone that gives us hope for the future.

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

Peter Bhatti is a Canada-based human rights activist.

The interview was conducted by Duriya Hashmi. Additional reporting by Shamil Shams.

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