Radical Islamists in Pakistan are up in arms over the likely release of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who has been on death row since 2010 on blasphemy charges, which she has repeatedly denied. The Supreme Court judges who heard her appeal against her death sentence have also been threatened with dire consequences.
Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), an anti-blasphemy party headed by the firebrand preacher Khadim Hussain Rizvi, has spearheaded a fierce campaign since Friday to influence the verdict and pressure the judiciary to send Asia Bibi to the gallows. Pakistan’s Supreme Court, which reportedly heard a final appeal against her death sentence, reserved its judgment last week. The top court did not announce a date for the ruling and restrained the media from guesswork on the reserved order until the court makes it public.
The TLP rose to prominence last year when it paralyzed the capital Islamabad by staging a three-week sit-in against ostensible modification of the Khatm-i-Nabuwwat (finality of prophethood) oath. The sit-in protest culminated in the resignation of federal law minister Zahid Hamid through a written agreement among TLP, the government, and the military establishment. The distribution of largesse among the participants by a serving Pakistan Army major-general raised eyebrows as well. Thus critics put a big question mark on the neutrality of the establishment.
Asia Bibi, a mother of five, was born and raised in Ittan Wali, a small rural village in Sheikhupura district of Punjab province where she used to work in agricultural fields along with Muslim women. In 2009, her co-workers accused her of committing blasphemy against the person of the Prophet Muhammad. A prayer leader of a local mosque stood as a witness against her. In 2010, she was convicted under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code for the offense, punishable by execution.
Mobilizing for death penalty
Pre-empting flexibility on the part of judges to uphold the death sentence, the TLP started flexing its muscles to mobilize people for the purpose of creating political turmoil in the country. They took to the streets in different parts of Punjab and Sindh provinces on Friday and issued stern warnings that if the court set Asia Bibi free, the TLP would bring the country to a halt within hours.
Pir Afzal Qadri, patron-in-chief of the TLP, said while addressing a rally: “Judges’ remarks created doubt and fears among the party leaders that Asia’s conviction may be set aside to stop her execution.”
A four-point resolution approved by the party warned that the TLP would take the acquittal of Asia Bibi as an attack on Islam. They vowed to protect the constitution and the blasphemy law even if it meant the leadership laying down their lives. The TLP warned that the responsibility for the law-and-order situation would rest squarely on the judiciary, the executive and the establishment.
“Religious might has immense influence on our society as [it] can make and break state policies. Those inimical to theocratic rule and who struggle for secular dispensation, equality, and constitutionalism are being pushed aside by the state,” Dr Mehdi Hasan, a left-wing journalist, media historian and longtime human-rights activist who is a member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told Asia Times.
Hasan said the court must take cognizance of the fact that a score of people suspected of committing blasphemy have been killed before they were even taken to a competent court for trial.
“I think the release of Asia Bibi prior to her [being sent] abroad would be hazardous for her life. The moment she stepped out of jail she would be killed,” he said, adding that the court must ensure that she gets safe shelter abroad if she is to be exonerated.
Military and judiciary indifferent
Interestingly, neither the judiciary nor the government and military establishment paid any attention to the TLP’s open intimidations. The judiciary, which earlier disqualified and jailed politicians for contempt-of-court offenses, preferred to ignore the TLP. The government and establishment also overlooked the threats to the judges of the superior judiciary and allowed the TLP leadership to challenge the writ of the state.
“The state and governments in Pakistan remain always apologetic towards religious forces and they seldom take steps to assert the legal authority of the state,” Hasan said. “Present-day Pakistan is not what the founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah had thought of but it is shaped and gradually designed on the self-conceived Islamic doctrines of the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, who ruled the country from 1977 to 1988.”
He added that what Jinnah said in Pakistan’s first Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, should have been incorporated in the preamble of the constitution.
In a related development, a two-member bench of the apex court headed by Justice Mushir Alam and Justice Qazi Faez Isa last week resumed hearing a suo motu case pertaining to the Islamabad sit-in protest. The Supreme Court questioned the legality of registration of the TLP as a political party and summoned the Election Commission of Pakistan to submit a detailed report on the registration process and the scope of action against any political party found involved in illegal activities.
In 2011, a bodyguard gunned down Punjab governor Salman Taseer, an upfront critic of blasphemy law, who obstinately struggled for the release of the Christian woman on death row. He was an ardent supporter of minority rights and sought amendments in the draconian blasphemy legislation but ended up losing his own life.
Just months after Taseer’s killing, Pakistani minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti, who also demanded justice for Asia Bibi, was ambushed by gunmen and shot dead.