In June 2009, Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, was accused of insulting Prophet Muhammad. In November 2010, she was sentenced to death, making her the first woman to be given capital punishment under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The conviction, later upheld by the Lahore High Court, led to reactions both local and global, with Pope Benedict XVI calling for her release.
In Pakistan, the controversy took a political turn. Two of Aasia’s supporters, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti were assassinated within months of each other. Maulana Yousaf Qureshi, the Imam of a Peshawar mosque, put a price of 500,000 Pakistani rupees on Aasia’s head, a bounty hunt endorsed by conservative Urdu newspaper Nawa-i-Waqt.
Still, there was a lot of hope last week that Aasia, whose appeal had been accepted by the Supreme Court last year, might be acquitted. There were some solid reasons behind this hope.
In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that criticism of the blasphemy law does not constitute blasphemy, thus lifting the coercive censorship surrounding the issue. Later that year, Punjab province passed laws in which senior police officers were required to investigate a case; previously, anyone indicted was swiftly arrested without any inquiry.
More recently, there was the surprise conviction and execution of Taseer’s murderer, Mumtaz Qadri. Suddenly, Pakistan realised it could overcome the most vicious of Right-wing threats when it comes to blasphemy. Last Thursday, though, the apex court adjourned Aasia’s final appeal for an indefinite period.
Had the hearing gone forward, it would have probably been in Aasia’s favour. No person has ever been hanged under the blasphemy law, a fact that conservatives cite with some resentment. In Aasia’s case, the evidence is circumstantial and inconsistent. Multiple accounts exist, with the incident itself coming to light months after it occurred.
All that is known with some degree of certainty is that a few Muslim women fought with Aasia over water in Sheikupura, and complained to a local cleric. The following year, Aasia was convicted. Since then, she has been represented by many human rights activists, journalists, and legal experts, and published her memoir, Aasia Bibi: A Memoir: Sentenced to Death over a Cup of Water, ghost-written by French journalist Anne-Isabelle Tollet.
Threats from the religious right-wing
Last Thursday, nearly 3,000 forces were deployed around Islamabad. A mob gathered outside the Supreme Court, demanding that Aasia be hanged.
Earlier last week, Hafiz Ehtesham Ahmad and other clerics from Shuhada Foundation, formed after the 2007 seige of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, said they will take to the streets and not let the government function if it releases Aasia. Clerics and religious organisations have been putting pressure on the government and calling for Aasia’s hanging.
An old poster spotted somewhere in Gujrat City: “Gustakh-e-rasool Aasia maloona ku reha karne aur karwane walle wajab-ul-qatal hain” [“Those trying to free condemned blasphemer Aasia are also liable to death penalty”]
A banned militant organisation, Ahl e Sunnat Wal Jamaat, also started protesting against Aasia’s release. They started publishing implicit threats in the Karachi-based, right-wing Urdu newspaper Ummat.
The headline reads: “Taugheen-e-rasalat ki mujrima Aasia ki rahai ke liye berooni kuwatein sar garam” [“Foreign powers actively working for the release of blasphemer Aasia”]
Human rights activists often complain that the blasphemy law is too harsh, victimises minorities and is easily used to settle private disputes and vendettas. The law is viciously protected from any amendment. Those who seek a change or are accused under the law are either hounded into oblivion or, worse, killed.
The accused often need additional security due to death threats. The plaintiff usually comes in large groups, with several lawyers and clerics, who provide protection in addition to legal advice, usually for free. There is an alliance of hundreds of lawyers who can be hired in blasphemy cases by the plaintiffs without a fee. They are directly linked to the group called Khatam-e-Nabuwat (Movement for the Finality of the Prophethood) that packs the courtrooms with its menacing disciples and gives the complainant every possible form of support. The group’s main aim is to preserve the honour of religious figures, particularly the Prophet. Members of this group have been sitting and protesting in front of the Punjab Assembly in Lahore for three days straight, demanding that Aasia be hanged. In the 15 years since the group came into being, this ‘support’ has tripled the number of blasphemy cases – by 2014, the figure had risen to 336.
The case was adjourned a day before Ashura. On the ninth and tenth day of Muharram (October 11 and 12), newspaper offices are closed and regular programming is not aired on news channels.
The only English paper to carry the news on its front page was Dawn. The News International, an English daily from the same stable as newspaper Pakistan Today, carried an editorial saying: “It is regrettable that the case of one woman has become so intertwined with political and religious sentiment that judges feel their verdicts will be seen as compromised. ..”
Other papers reported the news but did not give it much prominence; despite its significance, the case was not discussed on TV.
Among political parties, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is the only one that has, in the past, supported demands that the blasphemy law be amended, albeit not in a particularly vociferous manner.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari supported Aasia, but avoided taking her name or mentioning the word ‘blasphemy’.
PPP lawmaker Shazia Marri did, however, raise the issue of Nabeel Masih in the National Assembly, a teenage boy charged with blasphemy for liking a photo of the Kaaba on Facebook; lawyers who appeared in court to defend Masih were threatened in front of the judge in Kasur, a small town near Lahore.
Taseer’s children, PPP loyalists who are not involved in party politics, supported Aasia on social media.
With the government already in a soup due to the civil-military strife with India, it will surely not risk street protests by supporting a poor, Christian woman that the majority of Pakistan has no empathy for, and whose family continues to receive death threats.