PROTESTS ERUPT IN PAKISTAN AFTER ACQUITTAL OF ASIA BIBI
By Andrew Richards
A Christian woman who was sentenced to death in Pakistan for blasphemy has won her appeal and been acquitted in a landmark ruling. Asia Bibi was convicted in 2010 after being accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad in a row with her neighbours. She always maintained her innocence but has spent most of the past eight years in solitary confinement. Her case has been deeply divisive in Pakistan where there is strong support for the blasphemy laws. There is tight security in the capital, Islamabad, amid fears of violence. Hardline religious clerics have called on their supporters to take to the streets. (BBC News)
Charges and imprisonment
Aasiya Noreen, better known as Asia Bibi, is the first woman to be convicted and sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. She is also only the second person (after Ayub Masih, released in 2002) in Pakistan to win an appeal against such a sentence and be released.
Bibi was accused of insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad after drinking a cup of water that her Muslim co-workers said was not hers to drink from. As a Christian, Bibi was seen to have ‘contaminated’ the water. A few days prior to this incident, Bibi said that she had quarrelled with the same co-workers, who reportedly “wanted to take revenge” and planned to use Pakistan’s blasphemy law to get it. During official court proceedings, Bibi denied the charges but was overruled by testimony brought against her, supported by hundreds outside the court building.
After receiving the initial death sentence, Bibi later appealed and the sentence was changed to life imprisonment. This changed sentence angered Islamists who set a bounty on Bibi’s head. According to various sources, whoever killed her would receive $10,000 as reward. Following attempts on her life and harsh treatment in prison, Bibi was transferred to solitary confinement.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws
The imprisonment of Bibi captured the attention of the ‘Christian West’ in a way that helped spotlight the persecution of Pakistan’s minority Christians. Her case also forced a critical debate over the blasphemy laws that are regularly used against non-Muslim minority groups in Pakistan.
The blasphemy laws are a very sensitive issue and are dangerous to contest. Protesting the laws actually cost the lives of two high profile government officials in 2011: Salmaan Tasseer, a previous governor of the Punjab province, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minority Affairs, were both assassinated for their outspoken criticism of the blasphemy laws. Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who killed Bhatti, was sentenced to death but hailed as a hero for killing his employer. Qadri’s execution was attended by thousands of supporters calling him a “true martyr”.
Objections and protests
According to Amnesty International researcher Rabia Mehmood, one of the reasons the Asia Bibi case has become so polarising and controversial is the Pakistani government’s failure to take “effective measures to curb the campaign of hate and violence incited by certain groups in the country following her conviction… [In] fact the state has shown immense tolerance for the narratives of hate.” Soon after the news of Bibi’s acquittal was made public, Islamist groups all over the country started to organise sit-ins, to close schools and to block traffic on major highways that brought Pakistan to a standstill.
Love for the Prophet, together with the appropriate zeal to ‘prove’ it, became the rallying cry for those who opposed the reversal of the sentence. Religious leaders petitioned that Bibi be placed on a ‘no-fly’ list that would stop her from leaving the country. Religious political parties like Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) warned that the justices would meet a “horrible” end if Bibi was released. “Any judge who acquits [Bibi] must be killed,” TLP leader Pir Afzal Qadri told a public gathering on the day the Supreme Court was reading Bibi’s case. “Even the state should kill him because he has become an apostate by releasing her.”
The release of Bibi, and the ensuing protests, is the first real domestic crisis facing Pakistan’s newly-elected prime minister, Imran Khan. According to a report by Associated Press, Islamist cleric Afzal Qadri urged supporters to kill the three judges who acquitted Bibi, to revolt against army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and to overthrow Mr Khan’s government.
Another death sentence
Late on Friday night (2 November), Mr Khan’s government responded to protesters’ demands that Bibi be placed on the exit control list that will prohibit her from leaving the country. As part of the negotiations to bring the crippling protests to an end, the government also agreed not to oppose a petition for a review of the Supreme Court decision to free Bibi. The deal was described by the Pakistani English newspaper Dawn as “another surrender” made by the government. Wilson Chowdhry, chair of the British Pakistani Christian Association, said he was “not surprised that Imran Khan’s [government] has caved in to extremists”.
Placing Bibi on the exit control list is similar to giving her another death sentence. “Every moment that she stays in Pakistan, Asia Bibi remains a lightning rod for radical extremists,” said Chowdhry. “Asia Bibi and her entire family are in need of immediate asylum. She and her family have suffered enough, she just needs a country willing to cut through the bureaucracy.”
Asia Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, has reportedly asked both US president Donald Trump and UK prime minister Theresa May to help the family leave Pakistan.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
INcontext’s contact in Pakistan, Asif Aqeel, suggests that the landmark acquittal and release of Asia Bibi places Pakistan on a significant crossroad from where the future of the country will be decided. “The impact is going to be strong on Pakistan’s history. Pakistan is on the crossroad that places it on either a future where Pakistan develops into a more mature nation, or regresses into more fundamentalism, religious bigotry and hatred where Christians would be further exposed to tough situations.”
During the recent elections in Pakistan, mainstream media portrayed Prime Minister Khan as a far-right candidate pursuing an Islamic agenda that was key in winning the elections. If this is true, there exists a possibility that Mr Khan might side with protesting Islamists and block the courts from granting Bibi her freedom. According to Aqeel, pleasing religious groups was not part of Mr Khan’s campaign – he rather focused on a “just and honest society and government”. The success of Mr Khan’s election campaign rode on his promise to stop corruption within politics and local government. His plan was not to be more democratic like the West, but Islamic in focus. “He proclaimed that the new government would have social justice like the state of Medina that was established by the Prophet Muhammad fourteen hundred years ago,” said Aqeel. The assumption that Mr Khan was a promotor of the religious right came from Mr Khan’s support for dialogue with the Taliban.
Pakistan is indeed at a crossroad, with the United States reducing (and, in some cases, taking away) critical funding that has helped maintain their armed forces in the fight against terrorist groups. Prime Minister Khan can either decide to please the West by standing with Asia Bibi and facing the backlash of the religious right, or he could side with the religious right and face backlash from the West. Either way, the future of Pakistan is being tested, and its role in global politics, especially its relationship with the United States, is at stake.
The Church in Pakistan is also at a significant crossroad as it faces a possible increase in persecution as Islamists seek revenge for the release of Asia Bibi. The release of Bibi, however, is a significant ‘win’ for Christians. In a country where Christians are a minority, Bibi’s case is a strong reminder that justice is ultimately in God’s hands.
- For God’s continued intervention, which is Asia Bibi’s only hope
- For protection for the Church in Pakistan
- For believers to be resilient as they face possible negative backlash