Asia Bibi: Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy case

Asia Bibi: Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy case

Islamabad,Feb 5 : Asia Bibi left the home she shared with her husband and children and headed for the fields. The village of Ittanwala, some 40 miles south-east of Lahore, is surrounded by green fields and fruit orchards. It is one of the most fertile in the Punjab.

Like many of the women in the village, Asia worked as a farm labourer. It was June and the women were to spend the day picking berries. After working for hours under the scorching sun, the thirsty, exhausted women stopped for a break. Asia was asked to fetch some water from the nearby well. According to a BBC News report by Shumaila Jaffery, Asia set off, jug in hand. But on her way back she took a sip of the water before handing it over to her Muslim co-workers. They were furious.
Asia is a Christian. In Pakistan, many conservative Muslims don’t like to eat or drink with people of other faiths. They believe that non-Muslims are impure.

Asia’s co-workers told her that she was “dirty” and not worthy of drinking from the same cup as them. An argument erupted and fierce words were exchanged on both sides. Five days later, the police barged their way into Asia’s house and accused her of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Outside was a mob, including the village cleric who had accused her of blasphemy. Asia was dragged outside.

The mob brazenly began to beat her, right in front of the police. She was arrested and charged with blasphemy. During the trial Asia maintained her innocence, but in 2010 she was sentenced to death. She has spent the past nine years of her life in solitary confinement.

In Pakistan, the punishment for blasphemy against Islam and its prophet is either life imprisonment, or death. But all too often the allegation is misused as a way to settle personal scores. Once someone has been accused of blasphemy, before their case has even gone to trial, they and their families come under attack.

I met Ashiq, Asia’s husband, at a secret location almost a year ago. Ashiq and his children had been on the run ever since Asia’s arrest.

“If a loved one is dead, the heart heals after some time. But when a mother is alive, and she gets separated from her children, the way Asia was taken away from us, the agony is endless,” Ashiq explained. Sitting on the covered veranda, Ashiq’s face was sombre as he tried to keep himself composed.

“We are living in constant fear, there is always a feeling of anxiety and insecurity, that anything could happen to us. I just let the children go to school - they are not allowed to play outside, we have lost our freedom.”Despite the years of insecurity and uncertainty, Ashiq had never given up on Asia.

“I have lost my freedom, my livelihood and my home, but I am not ready to give up hope. I will keep struggling for Asia’s release.”

Then late last year, on 31 October, nine years after Asia’s arrest, Ashiq’s prayers were finally answered.

Against the expectations of thousands of conservative Muslims, the country’s Supreme Court overturned the earlier verdict because of a lack of evidence and allowed Asia Bibi to walk free.

Within hours, outraged by the landmark ruling, demonstrators took to the streets demanding one thing - that Asia Bibi be put to death.

For three consecutive days protesters attempted to force their nation and government into submission.

Main roads were blocked, cars and buses were set alight, toll booths ransacked and police officers attacked. Particularly in the eastern province of Punjab, many offices, businesses, and even schools were forced to close as commuting became impossible.

The country watched in horror while their government seemed barely visible.

At first the Prime Minister Imran Khan, in a television address to the nation, issued a warning to the protesters, telling them not to “clash with the state”.

But after three days of escalating chaos, the government said that in order to avoid any bloodshed they would strike a deal with those leading the revolt.

Immediately after Asia’s release, Khadim Hussain Rizvi and his religious political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) had taken to social media advocating civil disorder and violence.

They called for the judges who acquitted Asia to be killed, and encouraged mutiny within the army, declaring that the chief of the army was an apostate - that he had renounced Islam.

They rallied public support from well beyond their own party, with video clips on social media prompting thousands of men from all sections of society to take to the streets.

Rizvi also accused the West of encouraging blasphemy against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. In one of his tweets he said that people deliberately committed blasphemy so they could get money and be granted asylum by Western countries.

Only a few years before, Rizvi had been working as cleric at a small local mosque. He was a government employee and a marginal figure, but even then he was renowned for his controversial sermons.

While preaching, Rizvi would frequently glorify the murder of Salman Taseer. Taseer was one of two prominent politicians who were murdered for openly sympathising with Asia and publicly advocating the blasphemy laws be revised.

As the governor of Punjab, Taseer had visited Asia Bibi at Sheikhupura prison in 2010. In a televised press conference, with Asia sitting veiled beside him, Taseer had appealed to the president of Pakistan to pardon her.

Only a few weeks later, on a cold January day, Taseer was assassinated in broad daylight by his own security guard. In the middle of Islamabad’s busy Kohsaar market, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a young police commando, shot the governor 27 times at point-blank range.

Overnight Qadri became a hero to millions. Handing himself over to the authorities, Qadri told the police he didn’t have any regrets over killing Taseer - it was his religious duty.

“The punishment of a blasphemer is death,” he told the police officials.

At his trial, which was held only few days later, rushed through because of security concerns, Qadri was cheered on by hundreds of fans and showered with rose petals.

Rizvi was eventually sacked from his job as a cleric over sermons which praised Qadri as a martyr. He turned to politics and founded the TLP.

Within months of establishing the party, Rizvi’s activists blocked a main highway, paralysing the capital city Islamabad for 20 days. Rizvi accused the government of blasphemy after a reference to the finality of the Prophet Muhammad was left out of a revised version of the electoral oath.

Then in last year’s election, declaring themselves defenders of Muhammad’s honour, this tiny populist party attracted more than two million votes. Throughout the campaign, their posters and banners bore photographs of Qadri, idolised as a martyr to the cause.

In October, after three days of demonstrations across Pakistan spearheaded by the TLP, the government caved in. They agreed not to oppose a court petition to reverse Asia’s release, and barred her from leaving the country.

The petition was filed, the mob dispersed, and Asia was freed from prison, but was taken into protective custody.

It was to take three months for Asia to finally get her freedom.

For the past 30 years blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad has been punishable by death in Pakistan. But no-one has been executed.

There have been 1,549 known cases of the most serious charges - either blasphemy against Muhammad or desecration of the Koran - according to Pakistan’s Centre for Social Justice.

In those cases, 75 accused people have been murdered before their trials. Many were killed in police custody, or by mobs.

One such incident took place almost 30 miles south of the city of Lahore, in the small town of Kot Radha Kishan, named after two Hindu gods.

All around are lush flat green fields. But every half a mile or so in every direction, are the tall smoking chimneys of brick kilns. By each one, hundreds of bricks are stacked up in rows.

It was in one of these kilns that Shahzad and Shama Maseeh, a Christian couple accused of blasphemy, were burned alive by a mob in 2014.

Local journalist Rana Khalid recalls the events that led up to the killings.

He points towards a small structure close to the brick kiln. “The couple were locked up in this room so they could be protected from the mob,” he says.

Led by a local cleric, the mob were so angry that several members climbed on top of the roof. They broke their way in through the ceiling and dragged the couple out.

“They were brutally beaten by clubs and bricks and dragged by the angry men of the village to the brick kiln and were thrown inside.”

Shama was four months pregnant.

The mob believed that 24-hours earlier, Shahzad and Shama had burned several pages of the Koran, along with some rubbish. Shahzad’s family still deny this, saying that the couple were burning some of his father’s old documents.

For the murder of Shama and Shahzad, five people, including the local cleric, were sentenced to death while eight others were given two years in prison for inciting violence.

It’s not only Christians who bear the brunt of the country’s controversial law. It has also been used to persecute Pakistan’s Ahmadi Muslims. The community is regarded by the government as a non-Muslim religious minority. By law, Ahmadis cannot call their places of worship mosques or recite from the Koran or display their faith in public in any way.

Aslam Jameel (not his real name), an Ahmadi farmer, was working in his wheat fields in the south of Punjab in 2009, when he was approached by a couple of local villagers. They told him he needed to run.

Aslam had been accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad by a local imam and a mob was after him.

“The cleric alleged that, God forbid, I prompted four Ahmadi boys to write the prophet’s name in a toilet,” says Aslam, his voice choked with tears.

Aslam waited until after dark before sneaking out of his back door and making a run for it. He didn't get far before realising that running away would probably land him in even more trouble. Where would he even go?

The next morning, he handed himself in at a local police station.

It took almost two years for his case to go to trial, and he spent six months in prison.

“The judge was under immense pressure,” says Aslam, his face flushed. “The courtroom was full of clerics, but he [the judge] showed great courage.”

Aslam’s case was dismissed because of a lack of evidence. But after returning home to find his house looted and his livestock stolen, he knew he had to leave the country. He sought asylum in Canada.

“My family was threatened and harassed, my life and livelihood ruined, we had to abandon the village to save our lives.”

For those put on trial and found guilty of blasphemy, the stigma follows them even from the courtroom, to behind bars.

Shakeel Wajid (not his real name), another Ahmadi, says that mobs gather during trials.

“The judges of the lower courts are under more pressure [than the higher courts] from religious extremists, who gather in large numbers during the hearings,” Shakeel explains. “The judges have poor security and have to look out for their own lives as well.”

After being found guilty of blasphemy, Shakeel spent two years in three different high security prisons in Punjab.

He describes how blasphemy prisoners are kept in separate, high-security barracks, often with other prisoners who are mentally ill. Most of the time they are kept locked in their cells and for their own safety, are banned from eating with the other inmates in case someone attempts to poison them.

“One of my fellow prisoners in Rawalpindi was a university professor. A student didn’t agree with his interpretation of ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ and lodged a blasphemy complaint against him.”

Shakeel believes that he was exceptionally lucky that he was able to get his freedom back. But more than freedom, he was desperate to get his name cleared of the allegation.

“The label of blasphemer is worse than the fear of death. It’s such a serious accusation that I didn’t want to die with it. I wanted my name to be cleared so my family could survive with dignity in the society.”

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws became more severe in the 1980s, against a backdrop of increasing polarisation in the country.

In 1979, when Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union and the US started its covert operations in the country to help Islamist fighters, Pakistan was America’s frontline ally.

There were significant economic gains from Pakistan’s participation in the Afghan jihad, but it also boosted religious fanaticism. During the next decade, the political and social clout of radical groups increased dramatically.

They became more visible and vocal. The state openly promoted the ultra-conservative Wahhabi form of Islam, under the leadership of General Zia ul-Haq.

Laws were enacted and amended to enforce Sharia and to make Pakistan a “truly Islamic” nation. Against this background, the blasphemy laws were changed by parliament in 1986.

Originally the law was codified by the British in 1860. The purpose was to contain religious strife between Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs across British-ruled India. It protected places of worship and sacred objects and made it a crime to disturb religious assemblies, to trespass on burial sites, and to deliberately insult religious beliefs of any person, punishable by up to ten years in prison.

In 1927, during a time of political tension and antagonism between different communities, the law was tightened.

But the blasphemy laws didn’t favour any specific religion until 1986 when Pakistan’s parliament introduced new amendments and inserted a clause which made the use of derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad a crime punishable by death, or life imprisonment.

The clause was 295-C and only one politician opposed it. His name was Muhammad Hamza.

Now in his 90s, Hamza describes the day when the measure was being debated at the National Assembly.

During his speech in 1986, Hamza argued that the Islamic texts being cited by those advocating for the death penalty needed to be comprehensively reviewed by religious scholars before any change in the law could be passed. He claimed parliament was being irresponsible by avoiding a deeper debate on the issue.

“I have a firm opinion,” says Hamza, “you cannot run the country on selective justice. What is the purpose of the law if it’s destructive for the society?

“Our people lack depth, they are unreasonably emotional about religion, so I knew that the law would be misused - that’s why I opposed it.”

Hamza’s was the only voice of opposition in the parliament that day - 295-C was passed immediately.

Hamza still lives in his old constituency, the Punjabi city of Gojra.

In 2009, the same year Asia was arrested, Gojra made international headlines after a series of attacks targeted the city’s biggest Christian settlement.

Sparked by rumours that pages of the Koran had been desecrated, an Islamist mob had attacked and looted several houses before setting them alight. Eight Christians were burned alive.

In a solemn, low voice, Hamza recounts the attacks.

“It was a sad day. The allegation was completely unfounded, but the mob was charged. They didn’t pay heed to what the authorities were trying to tell them and then the situation got out of control.”

Since the introduction of the death penalty the total number of people accused of blasphemy has increased massively, according to Pakistan’s Centre for Social Justice.

“I feel dejected, the way this law is being misused against vulnerable people, religion has turned into a powerful political tool, it’s not a blessing anymore, and it has become a curse unfortunately,” Hamza says.

Critics of the law believe the violence against those accused of blasphemy is down to a misinterpretation of the holy texts at a grassroots level.

In Pakistan, thousands of children are sent to madrassas or Islamic boarding schools - a free alternative to the often underfunded public alternative. Many madrassas teach a deeply conservative interpretation of Islam, including a constant rhetoric around blasphemy.

So deep-rooted is the shame of blasphemy in the psyche of some followers, they are even willing to self-harm.

At 16, Muhammad Anwar was a typical teenager. Living in a small village in the Okara district, like other boys of his age, he often used to help his father on the farm.

As is common in many rural parts of Pakistan with low levels of literacy, the teenager and his family would look to their local imam as the final authority on all religious matters.

In January, 2016, he was attending a gathering at his local mosque. The cleric leading the proceedings, in an attempt to whip the crowd up into a religious fervour, posed a question: “Who among you is a follower of Muhammad?”

While the boy was dozing off, the rest of the crowd raised their hands.

The cleric called to the crowd again: “Who among you doesn’t believe in the teachings of Muhammad?”

The room fell silent, until finally the cleric publicly shamed the boy, accusing him of dishonouring the Prophet.

The teenager was deeply disturbed. After everyone else had gone home, he stayed behind at the mosque, searching for solace.

“I wanted to prove my love for Muhammad,” he said sincerely.

As an act of adoration for his faith, the teenager decided his best course of action was to cut off his own hand. Placing his right hand in a grass-cutting machine he severed it at the wrist in a single chop.

“The was no question of pain, I did it for the love of my prophet, may peace be upon him.”

He placed his severed hand on a tray, covered it with a white cloth, and returned to the mosque seeking absolution from the cleric.

Over the next few days, people from nearby villages and towns came to pay their respects to Muhammad Anwar, praising him for his love of the Prophet.

Two years on, he now spends most of his time reading the Koran at a local madrassa.

But he maintains, he has no regrets.

“I don’t care about what people say, it’s between me and my prophet. You cannot understand it.”

The Lahore High Court dwarfs the adjacent buildings along the city’s historic Mall Road. With its red bricks and high round white domes, it’s one of the many structures in the city that remind people of its colonial past.

Surrounding the High Court, narrow alleyways accommodate many lawyers’ chambers, often in shabby, cramped offices.

In a small plaza just behind the High Court, above a busy teashop, Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry has his chambers.

Chaudhry is the president of an anti-blasphemy lawyers’ alliance called Khatam-e-Nabuwat, which roughly translates as “finality of the prophet”. They offer free legal advice for any Muslim filing a case of blasphemy.

The alliance has around 800 volunteer lawyers working all over the country.

“Whenever we notice any such incident [of blasphemy] anywhere in the country, we reach out to the complainants and offer them free of charge legal assistance,” explains Chaudhry.

“We do this to please Allah and to protect the honour of the Prophet Muhammad - there is no material motivation.”

Chaudhry founded the forum almost 18 years ago, after he started practising as a lawyer. Now in his 50s, he says he is even more driven in his mission.

“It’s very unfortunate - blasphemy has become rampant. There are 40 blasphemy cases under trial in Lahore city alone.

“People who commit blasphemy are glorified like heroes, this is sad.”

He is unhappy at how the Asia Bibi case has played out.

“She has insulted the prophet, but she has become a hero for the West.”

Chaudhry was also the defence lawyer of Mumtaz Qadri, the former bodyguard turned assassin of the governor Salman Taseer. He says that the blasphemy law is a “blessing” and is actually a “deterrent” to mob justice.

“Mumtaz Qadri approached the police to lodge a [blasphemy] complaint against the former governor, but his complaint was not entertained”.

“He would not have been forced to take gun in his hands, if the law would have taken its course” he added.

In Asia’s case, the law did take its course, to the very highest court in the land, and despite the ruling that there wasn't enough evidence to convict her, violent protests still erupted.

Asia Bibi's lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook (C) speaks to the media after the Supreme Court rejected the review appeal against Asia, 29 January 2019

In its landmark decision on 31 October, the judges wrote: “It is ironical that in the Arabic language the appellant’s name Asia means ‘sinful’, but in the circumstances of the present case she appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘more sinned against than sinning’.”

Still, the government agreed there could be a review of the Supreme Court’s judgment on Asia’s acquittal. They wanted to disperse the protesters, but later cracked down on Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan.

Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the firebrand leader of the TLP was also taken into custody by the police. Asia’s family was kept at a secret location for almost three more months; she had been acquitted by the court, but was not free.

Finally the Supreme Court took up the review petition on 29 January. The proceedings lasted for a few hours. Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry represented Qari Salim, the complainant in Bibi’s case.

He failed to pinpoint any error in the verdict of Asia’s acquittal. The court rejected the petition and upheld its earlier decision to release Asia.

The chief justice said there were inconsistencies in witnesses’ statements against Asia. “How could we hang someone on a false witness statements?”

In retrospect, it’s ironic how a case based on false statements ripped the social fabric of the country for eight years. But the state finally showed its muscle and the rule of law prevailed.

The message was clear - that mobs cannot dictate and rule Pakistan. It also made clear that misuse of blasphemy laws will not be allowed in the country anymore.It was a watershed moment for Pakistan.

But the law is still there, and still nobody dares talk about amending or repealing it. The murders of Salman Taseer and minority minister Salman Bhatti still haunt the psyche of the nation.(UNI)

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