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Can Asia Bibi Ever Win?

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Extremist Muslims petition high court in Pakistan to execute Christian woman suspected of blasphemy

“Execute her. Now.”

Pakistan’s Islamic radicals have taken another swipe at Asia Bibi, calling for her to be put to death, ignoring the rule of law and the legal proceedings currently underway. The woman has spent seven years in prison and her case is now being heard by the Supreme Court, the third and final stage in her trial.

The Supreme Court must decide whether to confirm Bibi’s death penalty or whether to release her and declare her innocent. Should the Court decide the latter, the woman and her family would need to leave the country immediately in order to avoid an extrajudicial execution, which some imams  given the bounty on her head openly encourage.

The extremist Islamic group Sunni Tehreek, which follows the Barelvi school of thought, has unleashed its supporters and sympathisers into the streets of Pakistan’s cities. On April 15 they yet again called for Bibi’s execution. The group has sent the government its umpteenth “coded message,” warning it not to change the infamous blasphemy law.

In an official statement, Sunni Tehreek accuses Nawaz Sharif’s government of wanting to gradually remove Sharia law from national legislation, “paving the way for transforming the country into a secular and liberal state.” And it announced: “We will not let a blasphemous woman go free.”

It is important to note that demonstrations which have been similar in terms of method, tone and issues, were witnessed at the end of March, after the execution of Mumtaz Qadri who was sentenced to death and killed at the start of March for killing Punjab governor Salman Taseer in 2011. Taseer, a Muslim, had become a target because of his criticism of the blasphemy law and the fact that he dared defend Asia Bibi, visiting her in prison and proclaiming her innocence. He criticized it because he was aware it was being misused and was mostly manipulated in order to resolve personal disputes.

Three weeks ago, around 1,000 demonstrators managed to penetrate Islamabad’s “red zone,” an area protected by the military, which includes institutional buildings. They held a heated four-day sit-in in front of Parliament, marked by an atmosphere of tension and strong pressure on the institutions.

The unauthorized pow-wow was broken up only after participants obtained written assurance from the government that it accepted their requests and would make any changes to the blasphemy law or any concessions to those convicted for blasphemy.

Today, the radicals are raising the stakes and challenging the government once again, taking advantage of the leader’s moment of political weakness: For days now, Nawaz Sharif has been involved in the Panama Papers scandal, the documents published by newspapers around the world, revealing the existence of offshore accounts held by politicians from a large number of nations. The name of Sharif’s family also cropped up, because of its links to three of the ruling prime minister’s children.

Pakistan’s opposition leader, Imran Khan, promised to lead a protest in front of the prime minister’s residence in Lahore, calling for his resignation. Sharif has tried to defend himself by announcing the establishment of an independent judicial commission but a fiery controversy has broken out over this proposal too and the government is going through a really rough period.

In this context, the country’s Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, announced a law banning all public demonstrations in the capital Islamabad, in an attempt to stop the wave of protests by extremist groups that stirred the sacred realm of democratic institutions.

All the more reason why the recent move by a group such as Sunni Tehreek represents an open challenge to the government. One of the effects of the institutional fragility that has intensified as a result of the Panama Papers scandal, is the definite shelving of any plans to change the blasphemy law, changes which only a few months ago seemed possible if not imminent.

Christians also fear the inauspicious effects on the fate of Asia Bibi, who is still locked up in a cell at a prison in Multan. Security measures have been tightened to ensure her protection after intelligence reports signalled attempts by Islamist groups to kill her in prison, out of revenge for Qadri’s hanging.

There is no respite for this woman, even inside a four-walled cell. In this highly tense climate, Asia Bibi’s team of lawyers is not too happy about the prospect of a brief hearing before the Supreme Court. It would be much better to wait for things to settle down. So more waiting. Bibi has spent the past seven years waiting for justice to be done. She has done so with the patience and prayerful demeanor of a woman of faith.

 

This article appeared at La Stampa’s Vatican Insider and is used with permission.

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