Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Roman Catholic, of blasphemy on October 31. A three-judge bench led by Chief Justice Saqib Nisar unanimously reversed the 2010 trial-court judgment that had held her guilty of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad and sentenced her to death. The Lahore High Court dismissed her appeal in 2014 and when the case came up for hearing in the Supreme Court in 2016, one of the three judges on the bench recused himself and later resigned, leading to further delays.
Asia Bibi’s case attracted international attention and sympathy, for she was the first Pakistani woman to be sentenced to death in a blasphemy case. The Christian world was particularly outraged, with Pope Francis reportedly declaring her a “martyr.” The decisions of the trial court and the Lahore High Court profiled Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws and the death threats faced by judges from right-wing religious groups, which compelled them to move away from the path of judicial rectitude.
Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah was ambivalent on whether should be an Islamic state. However, his followers declared it Islamic, but differed on the form of the faith.
During his rule, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq imbued the country’s legal structure with austere Deobandi Islamic content. Pakistan’s association with the Afghan jihad spread Wahhabi and Deobandi doctrines and encouraged sectarian strife.
Its security agencies found some religious groups to be useful and initially deniable elements to push its security and foreign-policy agenda. The principal political parties also treated these groups with great consideration, for they had social influence and street power.
General Zia enhanced the sentences prescribed in Pakistan’s penal code for blasphemy offenses. While the punishment for willfully defiling, damaging or desecrating a copy of the Holy Koran became life imprisonment, the penalty for defiling, in any manner or form, “the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad” became death or life imprisonment.
After Zia’s death in 1989 the death penalty became mandatory in the case of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. Farahnaz Ispahani notes in her book Purifying the Land of the Pure, “In 1990, the Federal Sharia Court had determined that ‘the penalty for contempt for the Holy Prophet … is death and nothing else.” The court decreed that if the government did not amend the law to reflect its views by April 30 that year, the words “life imprisonment” in the relevant penal-code section would cease to apply.
The government had the option to appeal the sharia court’s decision in the Supreme Court. Instead it amended the section to make a death sentence compulsory.
Ever since then the blasphemy laws have been blatantly misused to settle personal scores. An allegation of blasphemy is sufficient for groups taking the law in their hands, not only against non-Muslims but also in some cases against Muslims too.
The mentally ill and the illiterate have not been spared. Indeed, showing sympathy for those charged or convicted by the trial courts and awaiting a judicial appeal process is dangerous, as was seen in the Asia Bibi case. Moved by her plight and obviously convinced of her innocence, Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab province, met Asia Bibi in jail in 2010. He was killed by Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard, in January 2011. Two months later Shahbaz Bhatti, then Pakistan’s minority affairs minister and a Christian, who also supported Asia Bibi’s plea, was killed.
Qadri was convicted of Taseer’s murder and hanged in 2016. He was hailed as a martyr by right-wing groups and his grave is now a venerated and sacred place for millions, showing how far has Pakistan gone on the road to bigotry.
Thus, in the prevailing circumstances, the Supreme Court judges have displayed courage in allowing Asia Bibi’s appeal. Significantly, they did so because the evidence against her was woefully weak and contradictory. At no stage, though, did they examine the validity of the law itself that makes a death sentence mandatory in such cases. If anything, they seemed to be leaning in its support, though they were critical of those who take the law in their own hands. The judges noted that since 1990, 62 blasphemy accused have been murdered before the trials could begin.
Expectedly, Khadim Ghulam Hussain Rizvi’s Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) took to the streets against the Supreme Court bench’s decision. Other religious parties condemned the decision and decided to protest publicly as well. Rizvi declared the three judges worthy of being killed and asked that the army disobey its chief. TLP members disrupted life in the cities and destroyed public property for three days.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, obviously backed by the army, decided to follow a dual approach. Addressing the nation, he emphasized that the judgment had to respected and condemned the threats against the judges and Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa and warned the protesters against breaking the law.
At the same time a team led by some government ministers and which also an officer of Inter-Services Intelligence negotiated with the TLP to withdraw the protest. On Friday, the government agreed that until the Supreme Court heard a complainant petition to review its decision, Asia Bibi would not be allowed to leave the country. It also agreed that the cases against the protesters would be withdrawn.
The Pakistani system’s climbdown in form and substance – ministers of the federal and Punjab governments and TLP representatives signed the agreement as if all three parties had equal status – has eroded the positive impression made by Imran Khan through his address.
However, unlike November 2017 when Khadim Hussain disrupted Islamabad for three weeks and the army publicly took the lead to work out a deal and impaired the prestige of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government, this time it was behind the scenes, supporting Khan to get a deal done quickly and at a minimal cost. Also, Khadim Hussain’s call to the army to disobey its chief was clearly unacceptable to the generals. He will have to pay a price in time to come.
Meanwhile Asia Bibi and her family will continue to be in danger so long as they are in Pakistan, and the country’s blasphemy laws will remain unchanged.
A last word: Countries that drift toward religiously narrow paths through commitment or expediency pay a heavy price, sooner or later.