After nine years, Pakistan’s most politically charged blasphemy case has come to an end. Asia Noreen, more commonly known as Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was accused of blasphemy, was acquitted by the supreme court of Pakistan. She had earlier been sentenced to death by a lower court in in Sheikhupura in the Punjab Province. The supreme court decision was followed by violent threats by fundamentalist forces in Pakistan.
Asia was accused of blasphemy by one of her neighbors in 2009 over an argument about her having used a Muslim neighbor’s mug to drink water. The mother of four was sentenced to death in 2010. The case brought international attention to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the precarious condition of the nation’s religious minorities, especially the Christians. While acquitting Asia, the supreme court bench, headed by chief justice Saqib Nisar, stated that her accusers “had no regard for the truth”.
The case claimed the lives of a sitting governor and a federal cabinet minister, and whipped up a massive Islamist reaction. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), an Islamist political party with a very insignificant representation in the State legislature of Sindh, is now calling for the death of the three judges that acquitted Asia. The TLP had earlier been campaigning for her hanging for years. The TLP was also involved in campaigning for the release of Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of former Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who supported Asia’s release and advocated for doing away with the blasphemy laws.
Asia’s case is not an uncommon one in Pakistan, but along with other cases such as that of Qamar David and Rimsha Masih, it has become a way for fundamentalist organizations to mobilize and campaign in the country. In November 2017, Islamists led by the TLP held a violent protest in Islamabad, protesting an attempt to amend the wording of the oath of office taken by elected persons that includes swearing by the finality of the Prophet. Human rights advocates and legal experts have long argued that the blasphemy law, a legacy of colonization, has been used indiscriminately to settle personal feuds. While most of the cases are filed against Muslims, it is also increasingly being used against the country’s Christians.
Most Christians in Pakistan are descendants of the formerly ‘untouchable’ castes who converted generations ago as a means to escape oppression. But the practices of the caste system continued despite the conversions. They are still largely treated as ‘unclean’ by virtue of their birth. Most of them still continue to make a living through their caste-assigned occupations as cleaners, sweepers, and other menial jobs that are considered ‘impure’ or ‘polluting’. On many occasions, Christianity has become a proxy target for caste-based discrimination and sometimes, even violence. Even in Asia’s case, the original issue raised by her accusers was that she had used a mug to quench her thirst, making it ‘unclean.’
While no one has so far been executed under the nation’s blasphemy laws, mob lynchings, assassinations and violence by Islamists have claimed the lives of dozens of those accused of it. In April 2017, Mashal Khan, a student of Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, was killed by a mob on the premises of his institution over accusations of a blasphemous post on social media. Asia herself had to be put under solitary confinement during her trial by the prison authorities because of the likelihood of her getting murdered in jail by other inmates. A similar incident took place in 2011 when a suspect in a blasphemy case, Qamar David, died in his prison cell in 2011 under suspicious circumstances. In Asia’s case the prison authorities went to the extent of giving her raw rations and had her prepare her own food, so as to avoid the possibility of poisoning.
Asia’s situation is also similar to that of Rimsha Masih, a 14-year-old Christian girl with mental disabilities, who was wrongly accused of desecrating the Quran. In Rimsha’s case, it was found that a local Muslim cleric had planted torn pages of the holy scripture in her school bag in a bid to rid the neighborhood of Christians. After Rimsha was acquitted, she and her family had to be transported by the government to a secret location, after which they sought asylum in Canada.
Asia Bibi is currently being held in an undisclosed location and she hopes to leave the country after her release. Her family reportedly arrived from the United Kingdom in October for the verdict. They have been in hiding ever since death threats were made against them for filing a plea against her death sentence. Asia and her family have been offered asylum by France, Italy and Spain. For now, the family is awaiting their reunion after around a decade, but are unsure of what the future holds for them in Pakistan.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has in the past praised and supported the blasphemy laws. He also used soft Islamism as a plank for his electoral victory earlier this year. However, on this issue, he said his government was determined on abiding by the verdict. He also called for calm and warned Islamist protesters of possible use of force if they did not disperse. The government seems to be visibly irked by the protests and views it as a threat to its authority. The army has been called to assist the government in dealing with the protests. Meanwhile, the provincial assembly of Balochistan passed a unanimous resolution demanding that the federal government approach the Supreme Court to review the judgment. Opposition parties also raised concerns about the PM’s “aggressive” stand. Clearly, the ordeal of Asia Bibi and her family is not yet over.