Pakistan Media Watch

Asia Bibi and Pakistan´s Great Win Against Bigotry

After spending eight years of solitary confinement in an 8f x 10f death cell, Asia Bibi (51) has been declared innocent. She was released from jail after a three-member Supreme Court bench cleared her of all the charges of blasphemy on October 31, 2018. She was, however, taken into protective custody after countywide violent agitations by far-right parties especially Tahreek e Labaik Pakistan (TLP) that demanded her name in Exit Control List. As per “agreement” with elected government, a review petition was filed, which was categorically dismissed on January 29, 2019.

Pakistan`s otherwise screaming media, noisy politicians and vibrant civil society are strictly tight lipped. Even Christians seem to have decided not to “celebrate” a win, which is as fundamental as was the removal of separate electorate. The virtual “Che Guevaras” are also silent. The strategic silence is being exercised as “responsible” attitude of not letting fanatics influencing the entire society, already hurt and angry.

Nobody seems interested in knowing where Asia Bibi is. Her lawyer claims that she had joined her family in Canada, which granted asylum to the aggrieved family. Earlier, UK and USA reportedly declined offering her asylum fearing backlash by influential Pakistani community. Both the judicial verdicts by Supreme Court were delivered as Islamabad administration had announced High Security Alert deploying heaving contingents of police and paramilitary forces supported by Rangers and Frontier Constabulary. 

Short Story of Long Ordeal

Asia Bibi was spotted when PPP government´s governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer visited her in jail and vowed to secure justice for her. His statements and visit ensued a controversy that culminated on his murder on January 4, 2011. The federal minister for religious affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, who insisted upon organizing memorial prayer meetings for “martyred” Salman Taseer, was murdered on March 2, 2011. According to The Dawn (March 2, 2011), “Qaeda and Taliban of Punjab claimed responsibility and declared him “a cursed man and blasphemer like Salman Taseer”.

Asia Bibi became the face of religious persecution in Pakistan, generating hundreds of appeals, declarations, resolutions, demonstrations, letters, signature campaigns, seminars, prayers meetings, candle light vigils and protests

The murders shook the world and made Asia Bibi an icon of religious persecution. For next eight years, Asia Bibi became the face of religious persecution in Pakistan, generating hundreds of appeals, declarations, resolutions, demonstrations, letters, signature campaigns, seminars, prayers meetings, candle light vigils and protests by international human rights organization, politicians and parliaments from across the world. On February 25, 2018, Pope Francis met Asia Bibi´s family while Colosseum and other building were lit up in red, symbolically equating her ordeal with persecution of early Christians.

Before that, the hanging of Taseer´s killer, Mumtaz Qadri (February 29, 2016) had pained and angered thousands in Pakistan who revered him as selfless soldier of Islam. Later, they organized themselves as Tahreek e Labaik Pakistan (TLP). The party became so popular and powerful that they blocked capital Islamabad for three weeks in November 2017 before imposing a humiliating “agreement” on elected government of PML (N).

They again paralyzed entire country for three days after October 30 judgment of Supreme Court acquitting Asia Bibi. Again, the government had to sign “agreement” with them. The TLP leadership was later booked under sedition charges for openly motivating their followers to kill the SC judges and advising faithful general to make coup against “infidels and agents”.

She was More Sinned Against Than Sinning

The 52 pages verdict cites Quranic verses, Hadiths, constitutional and legal provisions and judicial precedents to emphasize upon the fact that entire Islamic Jurisprudence rested upon saving innocent from false allegation and undue punishment. The verdict rests itself upon universal legal principle of innocent unless proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt and that burden to prove guilt beyond doubt lies upon the prosecution. The verdict mentions that benefit of doubt shall always go in favor of accused.

‘Is this the face of Islam that we want to show the world?,…..does Islam say that one should be punished even if found not guilty?’

While hearing review petition, chief justice, Asif Saeed Khosa, asked, “should we hang an accused on the basis of such testimonies?..Is this the face of Islam that we want to show the world?,…..does Islam say that one should be punished even if found not guilty? He further commented, “we have to protect our minorities, this is the beauty of Islam. Had this been a normal case, we would have registered cases against the witnesses”.

He reiterated the words of the judgement, which said, “tolerance is the basic principle of Islam. If Islam comes down heavy upon commission of blasphemy, then Islam is also very tough against those who level false allegations of a crime”. The verdict further stated, “it is not for the individuals, or a gathering (mob), to decide as to whether any act falling within the purview of section 295-C has been committed or not, because it is the mandate of court to make such decision after conducting a fully qualified trial on the basis of credible evidence brought before it”. 

In his separate remarks, Justice Khosa had written, “blasphemy is a serious offence but the insult of the appellant´s religion and religious sensibilities by the complainant party and then mixing truth with falsehood in the name of Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) was also not short of being blasphemous.” Concluding his remarks, he quoted Shakespeare novel, King Lear, as saying, Asia Bibi was, “more sinned against than sinning”.

Jinnah envisioned a secular Pakistan

Maryam Hussain in Naya Daur wrote on October 31, “We had already failed Asia Bibi, long before her imprisonment, and long before she was awarded death sentence by our courts.” According to Zia Ullah Ranjha, in The News (January 24, 2019), “In Asia Bibi´s case, the CJP specifically noted that the courts below conveniently failed to advert to contradictions and some “downright falsehood” in the evidence. For example, both the session court and Lahore High Court relied on a false FIR in Asia Bibi case as well as concocted evidence to award a death sentence”.

“While those with reason and heart celebrate her acquittal, let us not forget the scores of others languishing in jails over such wrongful allegations.”

Senior journalist Khurram Hussain wrote on November 1, 2018, “An example needs to be made, and heads need to be emptied of many delusions. The state needs to find its footing against bigotry”. The News editorial (January 30) lamented, “it is a sad reality that Asia Bibi will never truly be free of fear as long as she remains in Pakistan. The very least Asia Bibi deserves after all she has been put through is the chance at a new life”. The Nation wrote the same day, “extremist parties, which have been accommodated at every state, have no reason to protest-unless their mandate had always been to override principles of trial, justice and presumption of innocence-to enforce their will”.

The Dawn editorial (January 31) said, “While those with reason and heart celebrate her acquittal, let us not forget the scores of others languishing in jails over such wrongful allegations. And let us remember Mashal Khan, Shahzad, Shama, and all others who have lost their lives over false and malicious allegations by mobs”.

Daily Jang editorial, quoting founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah´s speech to the first constituent assembly of Pakistan in 1947, asserted that religious and cultural diversity constituted the core of the idea of Pakistan. It said, “Considering vision of Quaid e Azam about religious minorities of Pakistan, the SC decision to dismiss the review petition and uphold the decision of the acquittal of Asia Bibi should bring happiness and contentment for Pakistan and its minorities”.

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