Asia Bibi was accused of blasphemy after rowing with two Muslim women in her village in Punjab in 2009. (Reuters/Mohsin Raza)
I have previously written about the archaic blasphemy laws of Pakistan and its consequences. One such consequence was the murder of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer (whose son was later kidnapped, and escaped years later); and another, was the extrajudicial killing of the Minister of Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti. Both were killed for defending Asia Bibi.
In my previous post, I talk about how blasphemy laws have no place in Islam and how they are used in Pakistan as a political ploy to gain power, and a personal tool to usurp neighboring lands of minorities. This is what happened to Asia—she was a berry-picker who dared to drink out of the same cup as her fellow berry-pickers. Outraged, they accused her of uttering blasphemous statements about the Prophet; statements so blasphemous that her lawyers dared not repeat them in court, lest they be tried for the same crime.
In 2009, Asia was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death by hanging. It was her case that Mr. Taseer was serving as a mediator for—he had sought to get her a Presidential Pardon, whilst Shahbaz Bhatti sought to eliminate the blasphemy laws through the legislature. The irony is that they were dubbed blasphemers for doing so, both killed by civilians in an act of protecting Islam’s honor.
Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, a murderer who admitted to the crime, and was hailed by masses as Islam’s savior. The story goes that Taseer’s wife went from lawyer to lawyer, pleading for someone to take her case to prosecute Qadri, but was turned away out of fear. The judge who, two years later, sentenced Qadri to death, has had to flee the country after repeated death threats following his verdict.
Protesters greeted Qadri with rose petals as he was driven off from the courthouse to the jail. In March this year, five years after the first trial and after a superior court too found Qadri guilty of murder, Qadri was hung to death for the murder of Salman Taseer. 10,000 protesters blocked the Capital for days.
But what of Asia Bibi? She never did get that pardon; her case was an open one in the High Court when Taseer attempted it. After his assassination, no one braved that stance again. Her final appeal to the Supreme Court was scheduled to be heard earlier this October, but has been postponed, as one of the three judges on the bench recused himself for a conflict just days before the hearing. Although his conflict is legitimate, there is speculation that he was threatened.
150 clerics have petitioned the government to hang Asia. Hundreds of thousands have signed online petitions to save her. Meanwhile, Asia sits in solitary confinement, as although no one has been sentenced and hung in Pakistan in a blasphemy case, many have been killed by cellmates in their search for atonement. Talking to The Guardian, Asia’s husband said: “If Asia is acquitted we will never be able to return to our previous life, as my wife has been labelled an infidel and an infidel doesn’t deserve to survive in a society full of hatred,” he said. “Too many want her dead and have put a bounty on her head.”
While Asia waits for a new judge to be appointed, the problem persists. Day after day, a member of the minority community is persecuted for blasphemy and either publicly ridiculed, beaten, or prosecuted. Human Rights Watch reported that in 2014, 17 people were on death row with another 19 serving life sentences under blasphemy laws; all from the a minority community.
The Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad reported 60 cases of blasphemy related extrajudicial killings between the years of 1990 and 2014. That’s more than two people killed outside of the justice system a year—and these are cases that are reported; scores of others remain unreported for fear of further bloodshed.
Although the likes of Bhatti and Taseer have been moving to change the legislation that allows such cases to exist, the problem will not end there. The 150 clerics that are demanding Asia be hung are part of the problem, and therefore, must be part of the solution. Until the masses are continually led to believe that the honor of Islam is theirs to protect, legislation will not solve extrajudicial killing.
So while Asia waits for her justice, the government needs to take multiple measures—it needs to amend the legislation, yes, but it also needs to regulate the preachers and ensure what they are professing is not hatred in the garb of religion.