Pakistan: Asia Bibi and the countless victims of blasphemy laws | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 07.11.2018
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Pakistan: Asia Bibi and the countless victims of blasphemy laws

A Pakistani minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated in 2011 for supporting Asia Bibi, a Christian accused of blasphemy. Bhatti's brother told DW that he is concerned about the safety of Christians in Pakistan.

The case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who was acquitted in a blasphemy trial on October 31, has not only made international headlines, it has also put a spotlight on Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws.

Read more: Pakistan blasphemy case: Asia Bibi's husband fears for wife's safety

Hundreds of victims of blasphemy charges have been languishing in Pakistani jails for years. Many people have been lynched by angry mobs, or assassinated, on allegations of insulting Islam or its Prophet Muhammad.

Pakistan's head of minority communities, Shahbaz Bhatti, in 2011 (Getty Images/AFP/STR)

In 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti spoke out against Bibi's death sentence

Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, two prominent politicians who chose to support Bibi when she was sentenced to death by a Pakistani court in 2010, were killed by Islamists in 2011.

Taseer was the governor of Punjab province at the time. Bhatti – a Pakistani Christian – was the country's minister for religious minorities. Both liberal politicians had openly campaigned to reform Pakistan's blasphemy law.

Blasphemy, or the insult of Prophet Muhammad, is a sensitive topic in the South Asian country, where 97 percent of the 180 million people are Muslims.

Rights activists continually demand reform of blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.

Activists say the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas. Religious minorities often complain about widespread social and religious discrimination in Pakistan.

Read more: Asia Bibi lawyer seeks asylum in the Netherlands

Bibi's plight

Despite her acquittal by the Supreme Court in a blasphemy appeal case last week, Bibi is still in detention.

Her husband, Ashiq Masih, told DW that his wife's life is in danger and has appealed to US President Donald Trump for asylum, along with asking British Prime Minister Theresa May and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to help the family exit the country.

Following Bibi's acquittal, the hard-line Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) party took to the streets and forced the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan to strike a deal to end the protest.

Read more: Blasphemy agreement: Is Pakistan ruled by Islamists? 

According to the deal, the government will not block a review petition for the acquittal and will take measures to ban Bibi from traveling abroad.

Read more: Pakistani minister: Asia Bibi could be barred from leaving the country

Bibi was arrested in June 2009, after her neighbors complained that she had made derogatory remarks about Prophet Muhammad. A year later, Bibi was sentenced to death under the country's blasphemy laws despite strong opposition from national and international human rights groups.

Peter Bhatti (Privat)

Peter Bhatti: 'We aren't satisfied with the handling of Shahbaz Bhatti's case'

In an interview with DW, Shahbaz Bhatti's brother, Peter Bhatti, who is a rights activist based in Canada, demands justice for both Bibi and his brother.

DW: What impact will the Supreme Court's verdict have on the overall situation of Pakistani Christians?

Peter Bhatti: The Supreme Court's historic verdict came as a great relief for Pakistani Christians and all those indicted under false blasphemy charges. The judgment was long overdue, but at the same time we understand it is a sensitive issue.

Despite this favorable verdict, we are still concerned about the safety of Christians in Pakistan. Mobs can attack Christians or churches anytime.

Have your brother's killers been brought to justice?

No, we aren't satisfied with the handling of Shahbaz Bhatti's case. We demand that the government arrests Bhatti's killers, who are still at large.

The authorities have not supported us. The extremists who openly claimed responsibility for Bhatti's murder, threatened us into not going to court. Due to these threats, we cannot pursue a legal course in Pakistan.

We are, however, encouraged by Bibi's acquittal, and I will continue to demand justice for my brother.

In the aftermath of the Islamist TLP protests, do you think Prime Minister Khan's government will be able to provide security to Bibi?

This violent reaction to the acquittal verdict was predictable. But I don't think the government will block Bibi's release to appease religious extremists.

I'm sure the government must have gauged the implications of the Bibi judgment prior to its announcement. I am confident that the verdict won't be overturned.

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But Islamists want Bibi's name to be placed on the Exit Control List, or the no-fly list ...

Every Pakistani citizen has the right to oppose a judicial ruling. Those who are against Bibi's acquittal verdict should use legal channels to bar Bibi's travel abroad. But it is up to the Supreme Court to make a decision on the review petition. For now, there is no legal justification to ban Bibi from leaving Pakistan, because she is not a criminal.

If Bibi leaves the country, Christians can face a violent backlash from Islamists as a result ...

Protecting Bibi and her family is the responsibility of the government. It is true that Bibi is not safe in Pakistan. But I am confident that the government is capable of dealing with this situation.

Will it all lead to some changes to the controversial blasphemy laws?

Religious extremism is on the rise in Pakistan. I think the incumbent government is trying to counter it by taking one step at a time, so we must not expect drastic measures. But Bibi's acquittal is a milestone that gives us hope for the future.

Read more: Opinion: Bibi verdict avoids Pakistan's blasphemy problem

Peter Bhatti is a Canada-based human rights activist.

The interview was conducted by Duriya Hashmi. Additional reporting by Shamil Shams.

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