Aasia Bibi, a Christian labourer and mother of five, sentenced to death under the Blasphemy Law by a court in the Nankana Sahib district of Punjab was to be hanged on November 8 2010.
The first woman to be sentenced to death under the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), Aasia Bibi has been languishing in jail for over one year. The allegation that she uttered blasphemous words against the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) stemmed from a dispute with the Muslim women labourers she worked with. An investigation by the National Commission on the Status of Women also indicates that the case was filed under pressure from influential local people, and is based on settling personal scores.
According to a statement from a Womens Action Forum (WAF) member, who met Aasia Bibi after her sentencing, with Misba Momin, a member of the National Commission on the Status of Women and Nighat Hafeez, a lawyer from Shirkat Gah, Aasia Bibi claims that: “she was forced by her coworkers, all women, to embrace Islam while she was working on a farm on June 8, 2009 that led to a discussion on the religious beliefs of two communities. Following this, a number of hot exchanges took place between herself and the Muslim women. After 8 days the complainant, Qari Muhammad Salim, using three Muslim women as witnesses, lodged an FIR against her and she was arrested on this basis.” (CNN). Qari Salim, told a CNN reporter that “her death sentence was one of the happiest moments of his life. "Tears of joy poured from my eyes".
The Blasphemy Laws
Sections 295 A-C and 298 A-B of the PPC, commonly referred to as the Blasphemy Law were amended in 1982 and 1986 under General Zia’s regime. The legislation as it stands, sets out harsh penalties including life imprisonment and the death sentence.
Over the past 15 years, thousands of cases of blasphemy were reported in Pakistan, a rise from just nine reported cases between 1929 and 1982. A number of these are allegedly based on false claims and have been used against non-Muslims as an instrument of persecution and to settle personal vendettas.
In many cases, those accused of blasphemy languish in jail for years before their cases are even heard at trial. On July 22nd 2010, the Lahore High Court released a 60-year-old mentally ill woman, who spent 14 years in prison, for lack of evidence (Express Tribune). Other reported incidents reveal that those accused of blasphemy are killed in jail often even before they are sentenced. As recently as November 14th, 2010, the accused in a blasphemy case was shot dead near his house in Lahore, after being granted bail (Express Tribune). Other examples include incidents on July 30th and August 1st 2009, when seven Christians were burnt alive in Gojra, Punjab and dozens injured after riots broke out further to allegations that a Christian girl committed blasphemy against the Holy Quran. In April 2008, Jagdesh Kumar, a Hindu factory worker, was accused of committing blasphemy in Karachi and lynched to death by his colleagues. (HRCP). These are a few of the many instances which use the offence of blasphemy as a means to victimise religious minorities.
Concerns have been raised in Aasia Bibi’s case with regard to her safety in prison.
The Federal Government has requested the Punjab Government to ensure not only Aasia’s safety in jail but also that of her family members.
Responses to Aasia Bibi’s sentence
President Zardari requested the Ministry for Minority Affairs to conduct an investigation in to the case and submit a report within three days (Dawn, Express Tribune). Salman Taseer, the Governor of the Punjab personally met with Aasia Bibi in Sheikhupura district jail and states that she was wrongly accused of the crime and dragged through the streets and gang raped prior to her arrest (Dawn, Express Tribune). A mercy petition was submitted to the President through Governor Taseer, in which Aasia Bibi states that the "judge had awarded her punishment by ignoring the law and the facts under "pressure of some religious extremists".
The public reaction to this case has been divided. Protestors in Lahore rallied on 21 November demanding Aasia’s release. Yet only a few days later during another protest in the same city, an Aalmi Tanzim Ahle Sunnat (ATAS) leader Pir Muhammad Afzal Qadri requested Pakistan’s Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to take suo moto action against Governor Salmaan Taseer for supporting Aasia Bibi. On the one hand pressure for Shazia’s release increases whilst on the other, extremist sentiment voices anger at the official stance and potential for the amendment or repeal of these laws. Qadri is reported to have gone so far as to say that "government functionaries supporting Aasia Bibi should not expect to be spared" (Express Tribune).
The threats hurled at government functionaries, parliamentarians and religious scholars who have opposed the death sentence for Aasia Bibi is a disturbing sign. However, this is certainly not the first time that government officials and law makers have been threatened with violence in respect of challenges to the Blasphemy Laws. In 1995 two Christian children, Salamat Masih, and Rehmat Masih, were sentenced to death for blasphemy by a lower court in Lahore. They were also sentenced to two years' hard labour and fined 25,000 rupees each. It is widely considered that the charges against the children were brought maliciously (Amnesty). Their trial and ultimate acquittal led to violent repercussions including the assassination of LHC judge Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti in 1997.
Aasia Bibi’s case has served to open a can of proverbial worms, whereby it is considered that her case is being used as a platform for the reform of the contentious Blasphemy Laws. The result is a balancing act of ensuring the case is dealt with judiciously and preventing a violent backlash from extremists who wish to uphold the law as it stands. Shahbaz Bhatti, the Federal Minister for Minorities, has said that the Government of Pakistan will not repeal the Blasphemy Law as it may fuel militancy but the government may amend the law to prevent its abuse (Dawn). At the same time,
Bhatti has “urged the provincial government to provide all possible chances to Aasia Bibi to plead her case on merit” (Dawn).
Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International are campaigning for Aasia Bibi’s sentence to be commuted along with a review of the Blasphemy Laws.
Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI has appealed for her release of (JI Statement) in his weekly public address, stating that Christians in Pakistan "are often victims of violence and discrimination" (Telegraph, BBC).
As international condemnation of the sentence continues to pour in, Aasia Bibi has told human rights representatives that she has not had access to a lawyer throughout her trial.
Amongst the catalogue of violations to her basic human rights, a matter of grave concern for activists is Aasia Bibi’s lack of access to legal representation. During the initial investigation conducted by SP Muhammad Amin Bokhari, she begged for a pardon several times as she did not understand the nature of her offence or what constitutes blasphemy. At no stage, was her crime explained to her. She had no access to a lawyer or any form of legal counsel during her long ordeal in jail. She has also stated that she was asked to put her thumbprint on documents she knew nothing about in court and no one was deputed by the court to explain the contents of these documents to her.
According to Zia Awan, a human rights lawyer, serious cases involving capital punishment cannot proceed without the appointment of a lawyer for the accused. Awan says, “If they (Aasia’s family) could not arrange for a lawyer, the court has to appoint a proper lawyer for the accused. Additionally, the accused has to be satisfied with the appointed lawyer, this is very important.” Awan added that the accused also has the right to cross-examine the witnesses during court proceedings.
The failure of the investigating authorities and Court to ensure that Aasia Bibi was provided with impartial legal counsel is another blatant breach of her right to a fair trial.
Role of the Jinnah Institute and the Amendment Bill
The Jinnah Institute's Board of Advisors and its President Sherry Rehman are among many of those who have appealed for a review of the case and a repeal of the Blasphemy Law.
The Jinnah Institute reiterates that the Blasphemy Laws must be repealed and urgently amended by an act of Parliament and has called on the Lahore High Court to take up the appeal under due process in order to give Aasia Bibi a fair trial. Sherry Rehman, in her capacity as Member of Parliament, has moved to amend the Blasphemy Laws.
The Bill or the Amendments to the Blasphemy Laws Act 2010 was drafted with the intention of preventing miscarriages of justice under the Blasphemy Laws as set out in the Pakistan Penal Code and to ensure that all citizens of Pakistan have an equal right to constitutional protection. The main amendments ensure that cases are heard in the High Court, reduce the penalties related to each offence so that punishments are proportionate and any incentive to use these laws to settle scores is removed. Importantly, the concept of premeditation or intent has been written in to the legislation and a new section ensures that anyone making false or frivolous accusation under the legislation is penalised as befitting the section under which the original claim was made.
Aasia Bibi’s case is an extreme example of why the enactment of the Bill is necessary to prevent the abuse of the Blasphemy Law in victimising the minority communities in this country.