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International attention is turning towards the Supreme Court of Pakistan following the upholding of the death sentence on blasphemy charges for Aasiya Noreen, widely known as Asia Bibi.
Civil rights groups have joined churches in Pakistan expressing shock over the rejection of the appeal of the Christian mother of five who has been in detention since 2009. The Lahore High Court made the ruling October 16. Several international online petitions have gone viral, appealing to the Pakistani Supreme Court and the government to release Bibi. Some have been already gathered more than 200,000 signatures.
“The outcome of Asia Bibi’s appeal has upset a large number of people, and all eyes are now on the Supreme Court,” acknowledged the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in a press statement on October 20.
“While the Commission is of the opinion that every effort should be made not to interfere with the judicial proceedings by making any comment, the fallout of the case cannot be ignored,” the Commission said.
The Catholic Church too has adopted a similar stance on this, with Father Emmanuel Yousaf Mani, director of the National (Catholic) Commission for Justice and Peace in Pakistan stating that "Like it or not, we have to accept the court order."
“Enough is enough. We are praying that justice will be done to Bibi by the Supreme Court,” Father Mani told Aleteia.
He said the Catholic Church will also file an appeal on behalf of Bibi, whose conviction under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law has drawn much media attention since she was sentenced to death by the trial court on November 8, 2010.
Bibi, a member of the lowest caste of “untouchables,” had a verbal dispute with a Muslim who lived next door to her in Punjab Province. The two worked together in a fruit field. The blasphemy accusation is widely suspected to be trumped up.
According to The News International of October 26, “On June 14, 2009, some Muslim co-workers refused to drink water which she (Bibi) had fetched for them. They refused to drink water believing that the utensil had become ‘unclean’ after it was touched by a Christian woman. The exchange of harsh words between the two sides developed into a religious brawl during which Asia allegedly uttered derogatory remarks about Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).”
“The situation led to a meeting in the village headed by some elders and a local cleric, Qari Salim, who later became complainant of the case, which was lodged five days after the incident occurred. Asia was arrested the same day the case was lodged — June 19, 2009,” the article said.
The conviction of the first Christian woman sentenced to death under the blasphemy law, which provides for mandatory death sentence even for unintentional acts or words of blasphemy, stunned the world.
This prompted two prominent Pakistanis, including an outspoken Catholic minister for minorities, to risk their lives in a bold bid to grant clemency to Bibi.
Salman Taseer, a Muslim and governor of Punjab, was shot dead on January 4, 2011 by his Muslim bodyguard after he initiated a clemency petition and visited Bibi in jail two days after the death sentence was pronounced.
Shabhaz Bhatti, the 42-year-old Catholic minister for religious minorities, who closely worked with Taseer on the clemency move, was killed in a hail of bullets on March 2, 2011, in Islamabad.
Prior to that, Bhatti had told this correspondent in a telephone interview that "My life is also under threat. I am getting threat calls regularly."
More than 96 percent of Pakistan’s over 180 million people are Muslims. While Christians and Hindus account for over 1.5 percent each, Ahmadis, Sikhs, and tribals account for the remaining one percent.
The Citizens for Democracy, a secular advocacy group, in a statement, deplored the upholding of the conviction, citing "serious loopholes in the trial."
The outspoken secular forum of intellectuals and action groups also cited an article by one of its leaders, Beena Sarwar, reiterating that the Bibi case shows “the dangers of ignoring "malicious intent" while accusing of "injuring religious sentiments."
“We are deeply saddened by the court decision which was not passed on merit and it would not be wrong if we say that it was a biased decision,” said CLAAS (Centre for Legal Aid Assistance & Settlement) in a press statement on the decision of the Lahore High Court.
The court order “very much disheartens and we are worried about the other cases of blasphemy which are under proceeding in the different courts of Punjab,” pointed out Joseph Francis, founder and director of CLASS, which has been providing legal assistance and defending dozens of victim charged with trumped up blasphemy charges.
“The moment one is charged with blasphemy, their life is in danger,” Francis said, citing numerous blasphemy related murders in Pakistan. “Even judges have not been spared,” he added.
Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, who boasted that he killed Taseer for daring to call the blasphemy law a “black law,” was sentenced to death in October 2011.
While Islamic fundamentalist outfits protested death sentence to Qadri, whom they hailed as a “hero,” Justice Syed Pervez Ali Shah of the Anti Terrorism court, who had declared that the governor’s assassination was "a heinous crime" and convicted Qadri to death, himself had to go underground following threats from the Islamic fundamentalists.
“Federal and Provincial ministries should take the responsibility of monitoring, protecting and defending cases against persons accused of blasphemy,” Peter Jacob, former executive secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Church and presently a freelance journalist, told Aleteia.
“The successive governments are responsible for allowing abuse of blasphemy law and pervasive insecurity and they have ignored resolving them continuously,” said Jacob. He lamented that “while the state cannot be absolved of its responsibility to protect victims from extrajudicial excesses and institutional justice, defending the blasphemy victims has become an uphill task that the victims and their sympathizers cannot engage effectively.”
When the Supreme Court considers Bibi’s case, the Human Rights Commission too cautioned that “it would be spared the sort of intimidating crowds that had assembled in and around courtrooms during the trial and appellate stages.”
“Pakistan is in a difficult situation because the blasphemy law and the manner in which it is implemented have not been subjected to due scrutiny,” the Commission noted.
“While we continue to expect that the judiciary of Pakistan will not fail the hopes for justice of a poor woman, the essential task lies with the lawmakers and ulema (clerics). For if they do not realize the impact that this law is having on the thinking of the people and in fuelling intolerance in Pakistan we will face even greater difficulties,” the human rights watchdog added.
The blasphemy law is part of a larger problem, said Nina Shea and Farahnaz Ispahani, in a recent article. "State laws and practices relating to Islamic blasphemy…are increasingly suppressing moderate voices, while allowing extremists to dominate cultural discourse and learning. As a result, extremism is making ideological inroads into wider and wider segments of the population," wrote the authors, respectively director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and former member of the Pakistani parliament..
But Pakistan is not the only country to blame, they wrote in a separate article: "The United States … actually goes along with the idea of other countries’ criminalizing offensive speech. In 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, co-chairing a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), initiated the ongoing ‘Istanbul Process’ to curb anti-Islamic blasphemy (also called religious ‘defamation,’ ‘insult,’ and ‘hate speech’). The administration has even had the United States cosponsor U.N. resolutions with the OIC—resolutions supported, needless to say, by Pakistan—intended to promote stricter global enforcement of hate speech bans."
Anto Akkara writes from New Delhi, India.