In a landmark judgment, the Supreme court of Pakistan has acquitted a Christian woman who was accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death by the lower courts.
The Supreme Court observed that “the prosecution had categorically failed to prove its case beyond the reasonable doubt.” The 56-page verdict noted, “It is not for the mob, it is not for the individuals, or a gathering [mob], to decide as to whether any act falling within the purview of Section 295-C has been committed or not, because as stated earlier, it is the mandate of the court to make such decision[s] after conducting a fully qualified trial and on the basis of credible evidence brought before it.”
Asia Noreen, a Christian woman known as Asia Bibi, was accused of blasphemy in 2009, specifically insulting the prophet Muhammad. However, what actually happened was that she drank water from her Muslim colleague’s bowl, and the woman was offended that a Christian woman had used it. Many Muslims in Pakistan think their utensils and food become unholy if they are touched by Christians. It led to an argument that culminated with the Muslim woman going to a local cleric and accusing Bibi of blasphemy. The cleric then who turned the whole village turned against her. Asia tried to explain that she never committed blasphemy but no one listened to her and her house was attacked by an angry mob.
The police intervened to protect Bibi and her family but she was later arrested for blasphemy under Section 295-c of the Pakistan Penal Code. Then-governor Punjab Salman Taseer visited Bibi in jail and after listening to her story, declared that he would help her. Soon after the announcement, Taseer was also accused of blasphemy because he had spoken out against the blasphemy law. Taseer was eventually shot dead by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, who was hailed as a national hero.
The allegations against Bibi were never proven in court but no judge dared to declare her innocent, fearing a backslash from clerics and extremists. Instead, the lower court and the high court, despite flimsy evidence and discrepancies in the statements of the accusers, sentenced her to death.
In Pakistan, a mere accusation of blasphemy is enough to get someone lynched by a mob or jailed for life. Bibi spent eight years of her life in prison for a crime she never committed. She was kept in solitary confinement as the authorities feared that she would be killed by the other prisoners. She suffered tremendous pain and agony despite never being proven guilty, and most Pakistanis believed she committed blasphemy without even knowing the facts. It is the norm in Pakistan for minorities to be considered inferior and most allegations of blasphemy are leveled against them to settle personal scores. Sajid Masih, Rimsha Masih and the Christian couple who were burnt alive are examples of Muslims leveling allegations of blasphemy in order to settle personal scores.
The allegations against Bibi were never proven in court but no judge dared to declare her innocent, fearing a backslash from clerics and extremists
Soon after Bibi’s’s acquittal was announced, the far-right parties and clerics took to the streets and blocked roads in Pakistan’s main cities. It is feared that the clerics and the hardliners will not only cause unrest across the country, but they will also try to kill Bibi and her family. Even though Bibi has been proven innocent she cannot spend the rest of her life in Pakistan due to the threats against her life.
Bibi will likely be granted asylum by a foreign country. But who will give her back the eight years of her life she spent in a tiny cell? Who will pay for the pain and agony she and her family went through?
Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code needs to be repealed – it was introduced by the British to keep the local the population divided in the name of religion. The military dictator Zia-ul-Haq added a few more classes in the 1980s, including the death penalty or life imprisonment for blasphemy against the prophet Mohammad. People can receive up to three years of jail for making derogatory remarks about Islam and life imprisonment for “willful” desecration of the Quran.
Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code is manmade, but most Pakistanis think it is a divine law and that those who dare to initiate a debate about repealing it are guilty of blasphemy. In such an atmosphere of ignorance and fear, it is almost impossible to even imagine that this law will be repealed in the near future.
Bibi has lost the golden years of her life behind bars and her four children grew up without seeing their mother, She still faces threats against her life from extremists, but the woman and the cleric who falsely accused her of blasphemy are free and enjoying their lives. The clerics who instigate violence through hate speeches and by leveling false accusations are never brought to justice due to the strong potential reaction from hardliners. Bibi was lucky that her case received international coverage, but there are many falsely accused people who are languishing in jail and in some cases, the accused are not given the opportunity to defend themselves and are lynched by a mob – as in the case of Mashal Khan.
A social structure should accommodate each and every citizen, allowing them to live freely according to their beliefs. Pakistan, however, has failed to accommodate social diversity. Instead of trying to adhere to the ideology of Jinnah, the founding father of the nation, which was supposed to engender a pluralistic and secular society, the state imposed a theocratic social model. Unless the state creates a new social order and narrative based purely on the principles of modern social sciences, and unless this current narrative is not changed entirely, children like Mashal Khan will continue to die at the hands of fanatics and innocent women like Bibi will be jailed on false blasphemy charges.
.The collective social suffocation, inability to live in reality and unwillingness to accept social change, combined with personal frustration will allow extremists to continue to exploit the blasphemy law to kill people who do not conform.
Bibi’s acquittal is good news. The Supreme Court decision to overturn her death penalty and set her free is a ray of light and a little step in the direction of a more pluralistic and progressive Pakistan. Still, a lot more needs to be done to protect minorities and other members of society from the misuse of blasphemy laws and the wrath of clerics and extremists.