ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In a historic verdict for Christians and other minorities of Pakistan, Asia Bibi, 53, a Catholic mother of five, was acquitted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan on Oct. 31, after being on death row for eight years.
Before her acquittal, her death sentence — for allegedly committing blasphemy against Islam — had been confirmed by lower courts.
Legal experts who have been observing the case are praising Pakistan’s highest court and are hopeful that the decision heralds important changes in human rights in Pakistan. But instead of similarly celebrating the verdict, the Catholic Church in Pakistan is keeping silent on the landmark verdict.
Senior Catholic officials in Pakistan, contacted by the Register, would not comment on the case, perhaps in part because they are fearful of provoking Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, a fundamentalist Islamic religious group with strong political influence. Weeks before the verdict, the group had called for Bibi’s execution and cautioned Supreme Court judges against acquitting her under pressure from “anti-Pakistan NGOs” and Europe.
Christians account for only about 2% of Pakistan’s 202 million people, 95% of whom are Muslim.
But if the Church remained silent for the moment, others in Pakistan have not. Following the verdict, massive violent protests led by Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan and other Islamist groups erupted across the Muslim-majority nation. According to news reports, Imran Khan, the new prime minister of Pakistan, was forced to promise these groups that Asia Bibi would not be allowed to leave Pakistan, despite several nations offering her and her family asylum.
Soon after the acquittal, Bibi’s lawyer, Amid Saiful Malook, fled Pakistan fearing for his life. A Church official in Pakistan, who requested anonymity, told the Register that, “as far as we know, Asia and her family are still in Pakistan.”
A Cup of Water
Working as a farmhand in 2009, Bibi was charged with blasphemy after a fellow worker accused her of drinking water from a cup that was used by Muslims. The ensuing trial convicted her to death by hanging in 2010, and the High Court of Punjab province upheld her conviction in 2014, despite international protests on her behalf.
Earlier in her protracted legal ordeal, Bibi had held out hope when her case was taken up by Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s second-most-populous province with Lahore as its capital, and Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic and then-minister for minorities in the federal government. The two men had initiated a clemency petition in November 2010 for Bibi, and, as a result, the men became targets of Islamic fundamentalists.
Weeks after Taseer and Bhatti visited Bibi in prison, however, Taseer was assassinated on Jan. 4, 2011, by his own bodyguard Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, who claimed that he killed the governor for calling Pakistan’s blasphemy statute a “black law.”
Two months later, on March 2, 2011, Bhatti also fell to an assassin’s bullets, when he was ambushed by unidentified gunmen while being driven from his residence to his office in Islamabad.
Justice at Last
Legal and Catholic humanitarian groups insist that the justice of Bibi’s long-delayed acquittal by the Supreme Court of Pakistan is clear.
“Looking at the merits of the case, Asia’s acquittal is merely logical,” Peter Jacob, a columnist and former spokesman of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Church in Pakistan, told the Register.
“We gratefully welcome the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment acquitting Asia Bibi,” Joseph Francis, founding director of the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance & Settlement in Lahore, told the Register.
“The trial judges in most cases [coerced] judgments against those accused of blasphemy under threats from religious extremists,” Francis said. “The Supreme Court of Pakistan in this judgment has clearly observed that the lower courts must take into consideration the discrepancies in the statements of the witnesses.”
Acknowledging these same discrepancies, Jacob said that, “in the given socio-political context of Pakistan, the judges should be applauded for their courage in deciding this case.”
Though no formal execution has taken place under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, several of those accused of breaking the law, and the lawyers who have defended them, have been killed on court premises, in prison, at hospitals and even in police custody.
At least one judge linked to a case involving the law was also killed. After acquitting Salamat Masih, a Pakistani Christian accused of blasphemy, Judge Iqbal Bhatti was shot dead in 1996.
A 2011 study by the Justice and Peace Commission of the Church in Pakistan reported that, since 1986, 37 extrajudicial killings were committed against victims formally accused of blasphemy; 18 of the victims were Christians.
Caution and Change
According to Francis, the human-rights situation in Pakistan, which is becoming increasingly worse, is best addressed from the top down.
“Religious fanaticism is growing in Pakistan day by day, and the recent agitation is an example of the same,” he said. “We demand procedural changes in the blasphemy law to stop its misuse.”
Jacob also hopes that change is possible for Pakistan’s legal system, but says that it demands political courage.
According to Jacob, Bibi’s acquittal may already indicate a change in hearts and minds among Pakistan’s judicial and elected officials.
“The stakeholders [in Pakistan’s fortunes], especially the government, seem to be realizing the negative potential of the blasphemy laws,” Jacob said, “as well as the fact that extremist forces use these [laws as a] weapon with impunity.”
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s leaders must navigate between justice for Bibi — and others accused of breaking the blasphemy law — and the political fires that Bibi’s case has sparked.
“The government will have to come up with a solution to this issue,” Jacob said. “But the information minister [Fawad Chaudry] said the other day that the government is ‘firefighting’ at the moment, and reforms or policy will come later.”
Register correspondent Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.