Pakistan dangles between hope and despair over minority rights

Will 2019 be a better year for Pakistan's religious minorities? 2018 offered some hope, as the country's top court released Asia Bibi, a blasphemy-accused Christian woman, from jail. Should we keep our hopes high?

In a landmark decision in October, Pakistan's Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a blasphemy convict who had been on death row since 2010. Bibi, an impoverished Christian woman and a mother of five, had been accused of blasphemy in 2009 and sentenced to death a year later.

Read more: The case of Asia Bibi in Pakistan 

The top court's ruling came as a pleasant surprise for the Islamic country's rights activists and civil society groups, who had been demanding her release for nearly a decade.

The liberal euphoria about Bibi's acquittal, however, turned out to be ephemeral. Islamist groups took to the streets against the court's verdict, chanting "Death to Asia Bibi, death to blasphemers" slogans. The chaos and violence forced Prime Minister Imran Khan's government to strike a deal with the hardline Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party, allowing TLP to file a petition asking the Supreme Court to review its decision.

Bibi was eventually released from jail, but she still cannot leave the country. As Islamists continue to bay for her blood, Bibi has reportedly been placed under "protective custody."

It is unclear when she and her family will be able to leave Pakistan, but most likely she won't be able to spend another Christmas as a free person.

Read more: Pakistani police arrest cleric behind Asia Bibi protests

Asia Bibi is currently under 'protective custody' of Pakistani authorities

'Grave injustice'

Blasphemy is a sensitive topic in Pakistan, where 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants are Muslims. Rights activists have demanded reforms to the controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the 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.

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

After a hearing on October 8 of this year, Pakistan's Supreme Court reversed two lower court verdicts against Bibi in what was her final appeal against the 2010 death sentence.

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In 2014, when the death sentence had been upheld by the Lahore High Court, rights group Amnesty International called the verdict a "grave injustice."

Bibi's is one of the most high-profile blasphemy cases in Pakistan, with international rights groups and Western governments demanding her freedom. In 2015, Bibi's daughter met with Pope Francis, who offered prayers for her mother at the Vatican.

Her husband, Ashiq Masih, had appealed to US President Donald Trump for asylum, along with British Prime Minister Theresa May and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Read more: Opinion: Asia Bibi exposes a failing Pakistani state

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Can Pakistan set an example?

The year 2018 has thus offered some hope that Pakistan wanted to safeguard minority rights. At the same time, it reinforces the fact that the South Asian country has a long way to go before it reins in Islamists and follows a liberal path.

In a recent speech, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan vowed to protect religious minorities in his country. He even said that Pakistan would set an example for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on how to uplift minorities.

The Bharatiya Janata Party's Hindu nationalist government in India has come under sharp criticism from the country's liberal and secular sections for promoting a right-wing agenda and discriminating against religious minorities. Several cases of vigilante attacks on Muslims have made headlines in the past few years.

PM Khan was actually responding to remarks by renowned Bollywood actor Naseeruddin Shah, who said that the current situation in India was worrisome. But after Khan's "advice" to India, Shah retorted that the Pakistani prime minister needed to focus on his own country and "walk the talk" regarding minorities.

"I think Mr. Khan should be walking the talk in his own country instead of commenting on issues that don't concern him. We have been a democracy for 70 years and we know how to look after ourselves," Shah told The Indian Express newspaper.

The overall situation for religious minorities in Pakistan is far from being "exemplary." Attacks on Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis (who were declared non-Muslims by Pakistani lawmakers in the 1970s) have continued unabated in the past few years.

Not too long ago, PM Khan had to backtrack on his decision to appoint a world renowned Ahmadi economist as part of his advisory team due to pressure from conservative Muslim groups.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

Leaving 'for Canada'

A decade after being accused of blasphemy, Asia Bibi left Pakistan with her husband Ashiq Masih for Canada. A family member told DW that Bibi's two daughters were waiting for her in Calgary. Her departure was delayed six months, reportedly due to extreme pressure from the deep state not to speak out against the state when she leaves 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.

Former governor of Punjab province Salman Taseer and Asia Bibi (AP)

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.

Persecution of religious minorities

Pakistan's Christians and other religious minorities have often complained 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.

Read more: Police arrest dozens of Christians in Pakistan

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 hometown 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.

The Supreme Court's Asia Bibi verdict has, however, paved the way for some legal and constitutional improvements regarding the issue of minority rights in Pakistan.

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

PM Khan has an opportunity to turn things around in 2019. Letting Asia Bibi out of the country would be crucial and will be seen as a test case for his government. But more importantly, his government needs to pass laws for the welfare of religious minorities. Will he be able to do that?

Read more: European Muslims' support for Asia Bibi falls short

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