Pakistan: Asia Bibi to spend Easter behind bars

Pakistan: Asia Bibi to spend Easter behind bars

Paolo Affatato--

Asia Bibi, the 42-year-old Pakistani woman who was sentenced to death for blasphemy will be spending Easter behind bars, in Multan women’s prison. Any faint hope of the case reaching a turning point before the Feast of the Resurrection faded away before the steely resistance of the Lahore’s high court, where Bibi’s case is being heard. This is the fourth time in two months that the trial has been postponed, with the court’s bureaucracy slowing things down. Today’s hearing was cancelled due to the absence of one of the two presiding judges. The court’s administration seems to be playing with this woman’s life, denying her justice.

Asia Bibi’s appeal was filed with the high court on November 11, 2010, three days after she was sentenced to death on November 8. But mainly thanks to religious and political pressure, a date for the proceedings was set four years later. At least that is what the defence team made up of Christian and Muslim lawyers hoped after a date for the first hearing was set last February. This is when the “litany of postponements” began, with all sorts of reasons being presented: first the lawyers arguing against Asia Bisbi’s case were absent, then one of the judges was ill, then the college of judges adjourned the hearing (because one judge was transferred) and the case passed on to another college.

All of the reasons given were plausible until today, when lawyers announced the hearing was being postponed “to a later date”. The postponement is apparently for administrative reasons but is in fact completely unjustified. While the entire corpus of case files – including Asia Bibi’s - sits on the desk of the new judges, with hearings going ahead as scheduled, Asia Bibi’s seems to have been completely forgotten about.

Her case is the only exception and this seems rather strange given that it is so emblematic of the heated debate going on both nationally and internationally between supporters and opponents of the controversial blasphemy law.

But the huge media attention the case has received--after appeals were made by Benedict XVI, the European Parliament and international leaders--is in fact a double-edged sword. This is why Catholic leader Paul Bhatti who was minister of minorities until a year ago strove to keep a low profile. In the eyes of fundamentalists, Asia Bibi is a blasphemer and no one can persuade them otherwise. Two Pakistani politicians were killed for supporting her case, including Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic and Salman Taseer, a Muslim.

Judges feel intimidated by this violence. They politely avoid Asia Bibi’s case and it is hard to find a judge who will take it on and speak out. As with many other blasphemy cases in the past, the high court could easily overturn the ruling of first instance and acquit Asia Bibi of wrongdoing. So who will now take on the responsibility of releasing Asia Bibi “the blasphemer”, offending the Prophet and becoming an “accomplice to blasphemy”? This person would be doomed.

Who can forget the case of Iqbal Bhatti, the high court judge who acquitted Salamat Masih during a blasphemy trial and was then murdered in cold blood in 1996? Since then police and judges have often chosen to side with extremists or give in to their demands. While this kind of pressure was quite efficient in first instance trials, threats have now started having an effect in higher courts as well.

The blasphemy question remains a black hole in Pakistan’s judicial system. Judges are under threat so lawyers are reluctant to defend the accused. Following a visit to Pakistan two years ago, Gabriela Knaul, a UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, raised some very worrying issues regarding blasphemy trials. She stated that: Judges have been coerced to pass verdicts against the accused without supporting evidence even. As for the lawyers, in addition to their reluctance to take up such cases, they are targeted and forced not to represent their clients properly,” as they fear a retaliation from local communities. The UN envoy asked the Pakistani government to guarantee the independence of the judicial system and of rule of law.

But her words fell on deaf ears. Today, not even the politics is a source for hope: Nawaz Sharif has been President of Pakistan for about a year now. He is a representative of the Pakistan Muslim League, a party which upholds a policy of appeasement towards hardline Muslim groups. In the past Sharif made many concessions for Islamic parties to fulfil his own political interests. He confirmed the legitimacy of the blasphemy law back in the 1990s. The law was introduced by the dictator Zia-ul-Haq in 1986, without any Parliament vote. Violation of this law is punishable with life imprisonment and the death penalty.

The controversial law is based on two articles in the Pakistani penal code (295b and 295c), which forbid blasphemy. Asia Bibi did not commit this transgression but hope is running out for her.

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 11:33
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