Asia Bi and the misuse of blasphemy law in Pakistan

Last Updated: Mon, Nov 12, 2018 11:53 hrs
Asia bibi

Finally, after much dilly dallying, Asia Bi, a mother of five, has finally been released from prison after nine year-long incarceration. The judgment of the Pakistan’s Supreme Court in the case has been much appreciated across the world, though there were sceptics who thought that the government would give in to the increasingly belligerent demands of the extremist elements.

There were signs that the Pakistani government would give in to the bellicose Tehreek-e-Labbaik led agitation that brought the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, and its business capital, Karachi, to a grinding halt. Lahore, the second largest city of the Pakistan and increasing powerhouse of the extremist elements was also completely shut for several days.

Notwithstanding the release from the jail, the unlettered woman has sought refuge abroad pleading with the international fraternity that her life was not safe in Pakistan. Her lawyer, citing threat to his life, has already fled the country and Asia may also leave Pakistan along with her family.

The case of Asia Bi

For the last nine years, 48-year old Asia Naureen, who is more famously called Asia Bi, has been languishing in one jail or the other. The woman, an illiterate farm labourer, was accused of blasphemy after an argument with co-workers while harvesting berries. The fight that seemed to have ended on the farm itself, was ignited once again and she was subsequently arrested and imprisoned. After a sham hearing in the case, a judge in Punjab’s Sheikhupura court sentenced her to death by hanging.

When the lawyers of the mother of five kids approached the Lahore High Court in the year 2014 against the death sentence, the court upheld the lower court verdict. The same year, her lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court of Pakistan. It was almost a year later, when the apex court in Pakistan suspended her death sentence for the duration of the appeals process. Before the Supreme Court’s acquittal, there was sort of drama in the Lahore High Court, when a judge not just recused himself from hearing the case, but went on to resign from his post. This shows that even the mightiest find it hard to antagonise the extremists in Pakistan. When the well protected Salman Taseer, the former Governor of Punjab can be gunned down by his own bodyguard, judges too have to fear for their and their family members’ lives.

Judgment

Immediately after her arrest, the lower court was shown that Asia Bi had confessed to the fact that she had uttered blasphemous words against the Prophet of Islam. Nonetheless, she later retracted her confession saying it was done under duress.

While delivering the judgment, the Chief Justice of Pakistani Supreme Court, Justice Mian Saqib Nisar questioned the confession in the first place, saying, "This Court has repeatedly held that evidence of extra-judicial confession is a fragile piece of evidence and utmost care and caution has to be exercised in placing reliance on such a confession... It is always looked at with doubt and suspicion due to the ease with which it may be concocted. The legal worth of the extra judicial confession is almost equal to naught, keeping in view the natural course of events, human behaviour, conduct and probabilities, in ordinary course."

He went on to add that the woman was coerced into confessing, despite not uttering blasphemous words. Justice Saqib Nisar went on to add:

"In this very instant case, the appellant was brought to a gathering of potentially hundreds of people, she was alone at the time, tensions were running high, and it was an intimidating environment, the appellant may well have felt threatened and vulnerable; thus, the alleged extra-judicial confession made by the appellant, even if presumed to have been made by her before such public gathering, cannot be termed as a voluntary action and nor it can be relied upon to form the basis of a conviction, especially for capital punishment."

Archaic law

What is surprising the most, while the bench exonerated the Asia Nourin for the lack of evidence in the case, it neither imposed fine on police officials, the people who levelled false charges against a middle-aged woman nor talked against the archaic law. Blasphemy law has been misused many times in the past.

Salman Taseer, the former Punjab Governor, who was gunned down by his own guard, had very few to mourn, while his assailant was made into an instant hero. Every religious outfit in Pakistan was eager to outdo each other when it came to praising the killer, who had been assigned the task of protecting Tasir. When the Pakistani Supreme Court handed him the death sentence after rather a long trial, even Jamaat Islami President, Sirajul Haq, went on to claim that every Pakistani was Mumtaz Qadri, the man who had killed Salman Taseer.

Salman Taseer apparently lost his life while trying to save Asia Bibi. He had talked against the blasphemy law and had said he will file a mercy petition for Asia Bibi.

Minorities in Pakistan have been prosecuted over the years. And archaic laws, including blasphemy legislation, have been used to further marginalize the minority communities in Pakistani society. Since 1990 as many as seventy people have lost their lives in the country due to blasphemy.

Amnesty International, while advocating reformation of Pakistani blasphemy law says: “Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are overbroad, vague and coercive. They have been used to target religious minorities, pursue personal vendettas, and carry out vigilante violence. Based on little or no evidence, the accused will struggle to establish their innocence while angry and violent mobs seek to intimidate the police, witnesses, prosecutors, lawyers and judges,” stated a press note issued from Amnesty International’s headquarter on Wednesday.

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