Death Sentence Stays
Asia Bibi became the first woman to be sentenced to death in 2010 purportedly for committing blasphemy. She had maintained her innocence, claiming that she was framed by a Muslim woman. Now a Pakistani court has dismissed her appeal and her death sentence thus remains.
About The Purported Offence
It all started in 2009. 46-year old Asia Bibi was working in Punjab as a berry picker then. She is a Christian. While working, Asia Bibi became thirsty. She drank water from the glass of her Muslim colleague. This infuriated the Muslims who considered her, a Christian, as “unclean”. An argument ensued. Hours later, one of the Muslim women reported Asia Bibi to a local cleric, claiming that this mother-of-five had made disparaging remarks about Prophet Mohammed during the quarrel.
Asia Bibi puts it this way: “‘I drank water from a well belonging to Muslim women, using ‘their’ cup, in the burning heat of the midday sun. I, Asia Bibi, have been sentenced to death because I was thirsty. I’m a prisoner because I used the same cup as those Muslim women, because water served by a Christian woman was regarded as unclean by my stupid fellow fruit-pickers”.
Based on this allegation, Asia Bibi found herself and members of her family beaten by an angry crowd. Asia Bibi was eventually arrested and charged in 2010 with blasphemy for which the penalty is death.
In court, Asia Bibi’s lawyer, Naeem Shakir, argued that that the witnesses had contracted themselves, and that the case was really one that arose from a dispute between neighbors.
Naeem Shakir noted that 2 witnesses for the complainant did not appear in court. However a prayer leader did appear in court, but he said that he was not a witness, except that Asia Bibi had confessed in front of him.
Naeem Shakir said: “I was expecting the opposite decision. We will file an appeal to the Supreme Court of Pakistan in a few days. I have a very strong case, I am sure the Supreme Court will provide us with relief. There is no concrete evidence against Asia Bibi, and the courts are only relying on the statement on those two women”.
Gulam Mustafa, lawyer for the complainant, reacted this way: “Asia Bibi’s lawyer tried to prove that the case was registered on a personal enmity but he failed to prove that”.
Kate Allen, UK Director of Amnesty International said: “This is the latest blasphemy outrage to come out of Pakistan. It seems obvious that this is a case of religious persecution, and it’s very likely the result of a squabble which escalated out of all proportion. Blasphemy accusations in Pakistan are often used to settle petty vendettas and persecute minority groups. It’s a complete disgrace that the courts are complicit in these vendettas”. Amnesty International later issued a statement saying: “Asia Bibi should never have been convicted in the first place - still less sentenced to death – and the fact that she could pay with her life for an argument is sickening”.
A spokesperson for Christian Solidarity Worldwide said: “Asia Bibi’s sentence is a tragic reminder of the continued abuse of the dysfunctional blasphemy laws and the underlying weaknesses in Pakistan’s justice system. Deeply-rooted problems of prejudice, inefficiency, corruption, and under-resourcing are amplified in blasphemy cases, and even more so for religious minorities. The only hope she has for justice is when the case is heard in the Supreme Court.
Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying: “Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should use the power granted to him under Pakistan’s Constitution to end Asia Bibi’s nightmare of years of imprisonment and the threat of a death sentence by pardoning her and repealing or reforming the country’s blasphemy law to prevent such tragic mockeries of justice from occurring in the future”.
But there are also those who agreed with the court’s decision. Cleric Qari Saleem said: “I am very happy at the decision of the court, and justice has been done”.
About The Blasphemy Law
Pakistan’s blasphemy law does not actually define what constitutes blasphemy. Moreover, evidence of blasphemy crimes might not be reproduced in court for fear of committing a fresh offence. And to make matters worse, there are no penalties for false accusations.
Judges have previously been attacked in Pakistan for acquitting blasphemy defendants and two politicians who discussed reforming the law in the light of Asia Bibi’s case were shot dead. One of them was Shahbaz Bhatti, then Pakistan’s minister for minority affairs, who is a Christian himself. He opposed the blasphemy law and recommended that Asia Bibi be released from jail. For that Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated in 2011 by the Pakistan Taliban who claimed responsibility for the murder.
The other politician to be killed for supporting Asia Bibi and who spoke out against the blasphemy law was Salman Taseer, then governor of Punjab province. He was shot dead by his own security guard.
Phelim Kine, spokesman for Human Rights Watch said; “Asia Bibi’s case is an example of how Pakistan’s vaguely worded blasphemy law has led to discrimination, persecution and murder since its imposition almost three decades ago”. He described the court’s decision as a “disgrace to Pakistan’s judiciary”.
Think About It
Should the blasphemy law be reviewed or even abolished? What kind of law is it when the words that are purportedly blasphemous cannot be repeated in court because doing so will open that witness to a fresh charge of blasphemy? For an offence that carries the death penalty, why is there no penalty for making a false accusation of blasphemy against another person? How is an accused going to defend himself under such circumstances?
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