Her case is now in the hands of the Supreme Court. The news will surely provoke a reaction from the international community
romeThere is no justice for Asia Bibi. The Lahore High Court, a court of second instance, has upheld the death sentence for the Pakistani Christian woman accused of blasphemy. Speaking to Fides news agency, Naeem Shakir, one of the lawyers defending Asia Bibi, said the ruling betrayed the expectations and trust of the defence. The case will now be passed on to the country’s Supreme Court, where Asia Bibi will present an appeal. This will be the final step before hanging.
A broad and detailed appeal was presented during this morning’s hearing, which finally took place after numerous postponements. The case against Bibi – which was based on an allegedly “deliberate act of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad” – was dismantled piece by piece. Bibi was sentenced by a crooked court of first instance, on 8 November 2010. The sentence was mainly based on testimonial evidence.
The main figures in the prosecution are: the complainant, Qari Mohammad Salam, an imam of a mosque in the village of Ittanwali, in the district of Nankana Sahib in Punjab – the village where Bibi was born and lived for 40 years with her humble farming family – and two Muslim nuns, also farm workers, who had argued with Bibi while they were working in the fields. Bibi said the two nuns refused to drink from the same spring as she had because they considered her to be “impure”. This sparked a row which turned from malice and bitterness into an “act of blasphemy”.
The picture seemed crystal clear and according to the principles of criminal justice, there was good reason to be optimistic. After all, Salam, the main accuser was not even physically present when the alleged crime was committed and had not actually heard the woman pronounce the blasphemous words she is accused of uttering. An absurd and paradoxical situation by normal standards, according to criminal proceedings and according to the law: evidence that amounts to hearsay, cannot be admitted at trial.
The personal prejudices of the two women and the fact that the man was physically absent from the “scene of the crime”, were encouraging factors and a reason for Bibi’s defence to be confident. The defending body includes Christian lawyers such as Naeem Shakir, S.K. Choudry, Sardar Mushtaq Gill and the current human rights minister for the Punjab province, Khalil Tahir Sindhu, a Catholic. All very competent men with an extensive experience of blasphemy cases. They say there have been countless cases of acquittals and victories being announced in court in what have often amounted to fabricated legal cases.
And yet, after a four hour hearing, the two-member college of judges, chaired by Justice Anwar ul Haq, rejected the arguments presented by the defence which contested the contradictions in the evidence presented by the prosecution and the lack of credibility. The judge ignored another key point: the obvious fabrication of false accusations. Indeed, the blasphemy charges were made after a village assembly led by the imam, just days after the quarrel. What makes it seem obvious that the whole thing is part of a set-up, is the delay with which the incident was reported to the police: the complaint was lodged and recorded on 19 June 2009, a whole five days after the incriminating episode took place. Here again, the law clearly favours the defence, the lawyers say.
“The judge upheld the accusations made by the two Muslim women who testified to the alleged act of blasphemy committed by Asia,” Shakir says, visibly let down. Radical Islamists infleuenced the judge’s decision: Asia Bibi’s case is emblematic of a woman having a bounty placed on her head, by an imam who is promising to reward the person who kills her.
Pakistan’s magistrates recall the murder of Arif Iqbal Bhatti, a Lahore High Court judge, who was killed in 1997 after he acquitted two young Christians, Salamat and Rehmat Masih. The two Christians had been sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy by a court of first instance. The judge’s death is still a warning and a threat to the courts.
The battle continues despite the obstacles and difficulties that present themselves, with the added help of a foreseeable international reaction. Bibi’s family will be appealing to the Supreme Court, Pakistan’s highest court of law.
The Court is headed by Chief of Justice Tasaduq Hussain Jillani, an eminent Muslim figure and the country’s most important magistrate. Jillani has often shown himself to be a far-
sighted man who takes a balanced view of things. Last June, he showed great courage in issuing a historic “suo motto” ruling protecting religious minorities in Pakistan and ordering the constitution of the “National Council for the rights of minorities”.
His gesture was seen by Pakistani Christians as an “act which gives renewed strength to rule of law” in the country. This is precisely what is needed in the tragic case of Asia Bibi who has been languishing behind bars for the past five years.