By Imad Zafar
May 10, 2019
Asia Bibi‘s long and highly publicized ordeal is finally
over – she has been allowed to leave Pakistan. Bibi, a Christian, was convicted
of blasphemy and sentenced to death. However, she was acquitted by the Supreme
court in October last year after the prosecution failed to submit valid evidence
Bibi’s acquittal sparked protests by religious
fundamentalists across the country, and despite being acquited by the highest
court in the country, Bibi was not allowed to leave Pakistan. The review
petition against Bibi was also dismissed by the Supreme Court, but she was
forced to remain in Pakistan until she quietly left for Canada on Wednesday.
Such is the sensitivity of the matter that the government is tight-lipped about
Bibi’s departure and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declined to confirm
she was in Canada for security reasons.
Bibi is one of the more fortunate victims of Article 295-C
of the constitution: unlike many others accused of blasphemy, after spending
eight years in prison, she was able to flee the country. There are still dozens
of people accused of blasphemy languishing behind bars in until their cases can
be heard. The lower courts do not like to go against public sentiment and in
most cases, despite the evidence against them being weak, the accused are given
death sentences. The case of Professor Junaid Hafeez is a classic example.
Hafeez, a lecturer at a government university in Punjab, was charged with
blasphemy because of a Facebook post he made in 2013, and since then his case
has been pending in the lower courts and the judge presiding over the case has
been replaced six times. His lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was murdered in broad
daylight after he refused to abandon the case.
Despite the prevalence of people being wrongly accused of
blasphemy, Pakistan is still not ready to embrace reform. Hafeez is in solitary
confinement and his misery is likely to continue indefinitely. The unsung hero
of the Bibi case, the lawyer Saif ul Malook, who courageously fought for her
acquittal, told this correspondent that in future he may take up the case of
Hafeez. Malook is considered the best lawyer to defend people accused of
blasphemy. He is immensely courageous and his knowledge of the law and the
prosecution system is unrivaled. But what about the other people who are still waiting
for justice to be served and why are their cases not getting media attention?
According to a 2018
Humans Right Watch report, at least 17 people convicted of blasphemy
were on death row in 2017 and hundreds more were awaiting trial. However, the
Lahore-based Center for Social Justice presented statistics showing that
although 1,472 people were charged under the country’s blasphemy law between
1987 and 2016, the state has yet to actually execute anyone for the crime, as
in most cases the sentence is overturned by the higher courts.
The NGO reported that despite the fact that no one has been
executed, at least 75 people accused of blasphemy have been murdered by lynch
mobs. This illustrates the state of fear engendered by extremism in Pakistani
society. Mobs take “justice” into their own hands before the accused’s case can
be heard in a court of law. Though blasphemy charges are leveled almost equally
against both Muslims and non-Muslims, minorities such as Christians are
particularly soft targets. In one case in Lahore’s Joseph Colony area, dozens
of houses were set on fire after an allegation of blasphemy was made against a
resident. Such is the state of fear that minorities feel unsafe when the media
reports blasphemy cases, as they believe it only fuels tensions.
Despite being acquitted of blasphemy, Bibi was not able to
remain in Pakistan and she and her family had to flee to a foreign land. The
problem lies in the social fabric of Pakistani society, which is built around a
belief system that actively discourages critical thinking and discourages
healthy discourse on the misuse of the blasphemy law. The fact that she had to
flee to the safety of a foreign land represents a failure on the part of
Pakistan’s state institutions to protect her. For how much longer is the misuse
of the blasphemy law going to be tolerated? How many more people like Bibi will
spend years in jail due to false blasphemy allegations?
In the modern era, the laws of the Stone Age offer nothing
constructive for society. The growing extremism in Pakistani society needs to
addressed by the state. It should declare that an individual’s religious
beliefs are a strictly personal matter and that the government does not endorse
any particular belief system. This is the only way forward for Pakistan if it
is going to free itself from the shackles of extremism. If the government does
not pursue reform, people falsely accused of blasphemy such as Asia Bibi and
Junaid Hafeez will continue to be persecuted.