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Asia Bibi's death penalty: A test case for human rights in Pakistan

The lawyers of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman convicted of blasphemy, are set to appeal against her death penalty in the Supreme Court. Activists say the case will serve as a test for human rights in Pakistan.

Asia Bibi has been languishing in prison for more than five years. The 49-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 the national and international human rights groups.

The slim hope that the Pakistani judiciary might pardon Bibi and eventually release her was dashed earlier this month when the Lahore High Court (LHC) ruled to uphold her 2010 death sentence.

"We are utterly disappointed, but we will file a review petition against the LHC decision in the Supreme Court," Asia Bibi's lawyer Naeem Shakir told reporters after the October 16 verdict. Shakir is still hopeful that the country's highest court will grant Bibi amnesty.

Family members of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian minority women, who was sentenced to death by a local court for blasphemy on 08 November, husband Ashiq Masih (R) and their daughters Sidra Bibi (C) and Isham Bibi (L) talk with Shahbaz Bhatti (unseen), the federal minister for minorities, in Islamabad, Pakistan, on 20 November 2010 (Photo: EPA/T. MUGHAL)

Bibi's family members are hoping for a presidential pardon

Others are not so hopeful.

Imran Nafees Siddiqui, an Islamabad-based civil society activist, says that 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. The rights group 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.

International condemnation

The Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC) has also come out in Bibi's defense. On Monday, October 27, the WCC's general secretary Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit issued a statement expressing his concern over the rejection of Bibi's appeal against the capital punishment.

"The alleged circumstances of the incident which led to the blasphemy charges against Asia Bibi are highly questionable, and the imposition of the death penalty in this case is totally inappropriate," said Tveit, adding that apart from the issues of religious freedom, the charges, ongoing imprisonment and threat of execution seemed to have infringed Bibi's basic human rights.

The leaders of Pakistan's Christian community have also expressed alarm and sorrow over the LHC ruling.

All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) protest against 295-A-B-C- and in solidarity with Rimsha Masih girl accused of blasphemy

There have been demonstrations for Asia Bibi all over the world, including in Pakistan

But all this condemnation is not sufficient to convince the supporters of the blasphemy law. Fareed Ahmad Pracha, a leader of Pakistan's right-wing political party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, disagrees with the critics of the legislation and says the actual problem is not with the law but with its interpretation.

"We just want to say that the law should be enforced properly, there should not be any change made into the blasphemy law. We will not tolerate or accept this. If you make way even for a single change in the law, then there will be a number of changes, whereas there has never been a case where anyone has been punished," he emphasized.

Call for repeal of the law

There is evidence to support Pracha's claim. Although hundreds have been convicted of blasphemy, nobody in Pakistan has ever been executed for the offense. Most convictions are retracted after the accused makes an appeal. However, angry mobs have killed people accused of desecrating the Koran or Islam.

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

A Pakistani greets, third from right, the alleged killer of Punjab's governor Salman Taseer, as he arrives at a court in Islamabad, Pakistan, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011 (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)

Mumtaz Qadri said he 'punished' Taseer for insulting Islam

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 said he had killed Taseer for speaking out against the blasphemy laws and in support of Bibi.

In March 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's former minister for minority affairs, was assassinated by a religious fanatic for the same reason.

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. "It is high time that the government reform the blasphemy law," she said to 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.

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