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A test case for Pakistan

Shamil Shams
October 12, 2016

Irrespective of what Pakistan's top court will rule on the blasphemy-accused Christian woman Asia Bibi's case, it will be viewed globally from a human rights perspective. A crucial test for the country.

Asia Bibi, in Pakistan für Blasphemie zum Tode verurteilt
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Governor House Handout

The judges of the Pakistani Supreme Court will sit down in Islamabad in the coming days to decide the fate of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death by the same court in 2010.

Asia Bibi has been languishing in prison for more than six years. The 51-year-old mother of five was arrested in June, 2009, after her neighbors complained that she had made derogatory remarks about Islam's prophet, Muhammad. A year later, Bibi was sentenced to death under the Islamic Republic's controversial blasphemy law despite strong opposition from national and international human rights groups.

"I am very hopeful and confident that my client will get justice... and she will be able to spend her life with her children," Bibi's lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook told the AFP news agency.

A similar hope that the Pakistani judiciary might pardon Bibi and eventually release her was dashed in 2014 when the Lahore High Court (LHC) ruled to uphold her 2010 death sentence. It is likely that the Supreme Court's forthcoming decision would not be different from the LHC's ruling two years ago. Legally, the judges have very little room under the blasphemy law to overturn their 2010 decision.

Pakistan Gebäude Oberster Gerichtshof in Islamabad
The Supreme Court will hear the case on Thursday, October 13Image: Reuters

But the main issue on Thursday will not be legal; Bibi's case has acquired an international status, with human rights organizations demanding her release. Because the discrimination against religious minorities is rampant in the Muslim-majority nation, and the blasphemy law has been widely criticized by both local and international rights groups, the legality of the issue is pretty much secondary, experts say. The European Parliament and Pope Francis have also called for her release.

Imran Nafees Siddiqui, an Islamabad-based civil society activist, says the South Asian country's civil society should keep building pressure on the government and the courts irrespective of the legal outcome.

"[The blasphemy law] is a man-made doctrine and not a divine revelation. That's why rights groups should continue to demand Bibi's freedom. The media should also play an active role," Siddiqui told DW. "The public opinion carries a lot of weight and can also influence courts' decisions. We have to create an alternative narrative to defeat the extremist discourse in the country. It is a test case for the rights of minorities in Pakistan," he added.

However, those who want Bibi hanged argue that the case is Pakistan's domestic matter, which should be dealt with under the country's laws.

Demonstration für Asia Bibi in Pakistan
Rights groups demand changes to the country's blasphemy lawImage: picture alliance/dpa

A politically-charged case

There is also tremendous opposition to Bibi's release in Pakistan. The issue is no longer only religious; it is a sensitive political matter now.

Controversial blasphemy laws in Pakistan, where 97 percent of the population is Muslim, were introduced by the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. But activists say they are often implemented in cases which have little to do with blasphemy. They are used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas. Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis - a minority religious sect - are often victimized as a result.

A few months after Bibi's conviction, Salman Taseer, a former governor of the central Punjab province, was murdered by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. Qadri shot Taseer 28 times in broad daylight in Islamabad on January 4, 2011, and was sentenced to death in October the same year.

Qadri showed no remorse over the killing. He said he had murdered the former governor for his efforts to amend the country's blasphemy laws and his support for Bibi. Qadri was showered with rose petals by Muslim right-wing groups as he was taken to jail by the authorities. Subsequently, some mosques were named after him, and huge portraits of him were erected across the country.

Pakistan Mumtaz Hussain Qadri
The murderer of former governor Taseer is a martyr, a hero to IslamistsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Md Nadeem

But Qadri was sent to the gallows earlier this year, and his supporters believe that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government executed him under international pressure. So if the Supreme Court reverses the death sentence now, the right-wing parties and groups are likely to take to the streets. They fear that any concession to Bibi or any other blasphemy victim might lead to amendments in the Islamic laws and open a door to the secularization of Pakistan.

Fareed Ahmad Pracha, a leader of Pakistan's right-wing political party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, says he won't allow even a slight change to the blasphemy law. "We just want to say that the law should be enforced properly. There should not be any amendment to the blasphemy law. We will not tolerate or accept this," he told DW.

Under the shadows of fear

Bibi's family has been living under constant fear since 2010. The Christian woman's husband, Ashiq Masih, has been fighting a desperate battle for the life and freedom of his wife ever since. Masih has asked for presidential clemency for Bibi and has written to President Mamnoon Hussain, seeking permission to move her to France, where the Council of Paris unanimously adopted a proposal to award honorary citizenship to Bibi in March.

"We are living a life on the run" Masih told DW. "Our lives are being threatened. We receive death threats constantly and are moving from one place to another - and we try to support each other."

His family's life has been destroyed, he said: "I spent almost 45 years of my life in my native village. I had many friends there. But now I do not want to go back."

Masih is also scared. He is afraid of being recognized as Asia Bibi's husband in public. "This is why I almost never speak with Muslims. I am frightened that they know who I am."

Familie von Asia Bibi Pakistan
Bibi's family has been living in fearImage: picture alliance/dpa

Farzana Bari, director of Center for Women's Studies at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University, believes discrimination will persist unless there is radical change in the Islamic law. "It is high time that the government reforms the blasphemy law," she told DW. "These laws are against the spirit of Islam and are a cause of notoriety for the country."

Religious discrimination in Pakistan is not a new occurrence but it has increased considerably in recent years. Pakistan's liberal sections are alarmed by the growing influence of religious extremists in their country. Rights activists complain that the Islamists enjoy state patronage, while on the other hand liberal and progressive voices have to face the wrath of the country's security agencies.

"I call on the human rights organizations and the international community to continue supporting us with the effective handling of the Asia Bibi case," Masih pleads.

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