By Najam Sethi
THE Aasia Bibi blasphemy case has caught the world’s headlines because it is full of desperate and nasty ironies. She is a Christian mother of five children sentenced to death in a Muslim country that is notorious for making and practicing laws that persecute its minorities even as its official state religion of Islam proclaims special protection for them; whose citizens “ hate” the West even as they push and shove outside Western embassies for work, education and tourist visas; whose governments shamelessly line up for financial handouts from Western aid agencies even as they roundly condemn the “ begging- bowl syndrome”; whose military establishment provides “ safe havens” for Al- Qaeda- Taliban terrorists in North Waziristan even as it fights them in South Waziristan and Swat; whose security posture compels its strategic US ally to look upon it as both the problem and the solution for the war in Afghanistan.
Aasia’s crime: an allegedly blasphemous and angry retort to a group of Muslim village women who taunted her faith and her low caste by refusing to drink water from a utensil tainted by her “ unclean” infidel hands. She was imprisoned for a year during trial and sentenced to death by a magistrate quaking in fear of the mullahs. The Punjab law minister, Rana Sanaullah, says that Aasia’s conviction is a miscarriage of justice which will surely be corrected by the High Court. But the irony here should not be missed. Mr Sanaullah’s PMLN party rules in Punjab province. He has close links with hardline religious groups. In 1992, his party was in power in Islamabad and mandated the death sentence for blasphemy instead of life imprisonment.
At least two judges have been assassinated in the past for acquitting victims of the blasphemy laws and 32 persons have been “ extra- judicially killed” by mobs inside prisons or outside courtrooms.
ACCORDING to the National Commission for Law and Justice, from the mid 1980s, when the blasphemy laws were enlarged under General Zia- ul- Haq regime, to 2009, over 960 people have been charged under the blasphemy laws, among them 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis ( who insist they are Muslims but are prosecuted for blasphemy for saying so), 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and various others. 70% of such cases are situated in the “ settled” and semi- urbanised Punjab province but none in tribal Balochistan. Of the nearly 2 million Christians in Pakistan, nearly half live in seven districts of central Punjab — Lahore, Faisalabad, Sialkot, Qasur, Gujranwala, Sheikhupura and Toba Tek Singh. These are the very districts from which a whether against Muslims or minorities, are reported.
The Penal Code was established by the British Raj in 1860. “ Injuring or defiling [ only] a place of worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class,” was an offence punishable with imprisonment of up to 2 years and/ or fine. But in 1927, the law was beefed up to include all deliberate and malicious acts, by words or visible representations, aimed at outraging anyone’s religious feelings and the maximum punishment was extended to ten years and/ or fine. The aim was to clamp down on rising communal passions amidst Hindu demands for independence from British Raj and Muslim demands for separate electorates. The real mischief came in 1982, 1984 and 1986 when Gen Zia- ul- Haq increasingly clutched at the religious parties for political legitimacy and decreed so- called Islamic edicts which enveloped “ desecration” derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet ( pbuh). The critical “ willful intent” conditionality behind any outrage against the Prophet ( pbuh), even by “ innuendo or imputation or insinuation”, was removed and the sweeping law ( death or life imprisonment) was made a political weapon in the hands of the mullahs against their secular or mundane opponents. In time it was exploited to settle property or personal disputes not just between Muslims and non- Muslims but also amongst Muslims themselves. In 1992, the PMLN leader Nawaz Sharif, a protégé of Gen Zia- ul- Haq, promulgated the notorious Shariah laws which mandated the death sentence for convictions against blasphemy relating to the Holy Prophet ( pbuh). Another military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, who opportunistically professed “ enlightened moderation” to woo the West, promised in 2000 to laws but backtracked in 2002 when he was compelled to clutch at the religious parties for legitimacy and electoral alliance, just like Gen Zia- ul- Haq. In the last few years, feeble voices in parliament and civil society in favour of an amendment to these laws have been drowned in self- righteous and cowardly rhetoric.
Repeal, of course, is considered to be “ out of the question”. And the rest, as they say, is history. T O HIS credit, the PPP’s President Asif Zardari is considering a mercy petition from Aasia Bibi to commute her death sentence, which he is entitled to do by law, even as a High Court is about to review her conviction.
As the mullahs gather to protest any dilution of the law or punishment — which has nothing to do with Islamic theory or practice ( pbuh) forgave all blasphemers in his time — there are two points of view in civil society: one insists that pressure should be brought to bear on the courts to acquit Aasia on the basis of due process of law and evidence, thereby institutionalising the judiciary’s freedom from fear of the mullahs; the other wants to lean on President Zardari to send a strong signal to all and sundry at home and abroad by pardoning Aasia and pre- empting the courts.
The best course of action would be to protect Aasia from harm in prison, help her mount a stout legal defence in the High Court and get her acquitted, failing which the President could set her free while instructing his coalition partners to back him up by suitably amending an atrociously unjust and exploitative law that defames Pakistan and harms its citizens most of all.
The writer is the editor of The Friday Times
Source: Mail Today