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Aasia Bibi and the Blasphemy Law

By Huma Imtiaz

Aasia Bibi, a mother of five, has been sentenced to death under the Blasphemy Law by a court in the Nankana Sahib district of Punjab. She has been languishing in jail for one year. Aasia, a labourer and a resident of the Ittanwalai village, is reportedly the first woman to be sentenced to death for allegedly uttering blasphemous words against the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) after a dispute with Muslim women labourers.

However, an investigation by the National Commission on the Status of Women has pointed to the fact that the case was filed under pressure from local influential people, and is based on settling personal scores. Aasia’s family has said that they will file an appeal against the sentencing (Dawn, Express Tribune).

President Zardari has asked the Ministry for Minority Affairs to conduct a probe in the Aasia Bibi case and submit a report within three days (Dawn, Express Tribune).

Leading Deobandi and Barelvi clerics have urged President Zardari not to pardon Aasia Bibi, saying that such a decision will lead to "untoward repercussions". The clerics include Qari Hanif Jallundari from the Deobandi sect, and Sahibzada Karim, who hails from the Barelvi sect (Express Tribune).

Shahbaz Bhatti, the Federal Minister for Minorities, has said that the Government of Pakistan will not repeal the Blasphemy Law as it may fuel militancy. However, Mr. Bhatti has said that the government may amend the law to prevent its abuse (Dawn).

Aasia Bibi has submitted a mercy petition under Article 45 to President Zardari through Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, who met her in Sheikhupura district jail. In her mercy petition, Aasia Bibi has said that the "judge had awarded her punishment by ignoring the law and the facts under "pressure of some religious extremists"." Salmaan Taseer has said that Aasia Bibi was wrongly accused of the crime and dragged in the streets and gang raped. (Dawn, Express Tribune).

The Federal Government has asked the Punjab Government to ensure Aasia Bibi’s protection in jail and for her family members. Shahbaz Bhatti has “urged the provincial government to provide all possible chances to Aasia Bibi to plead her case on merit” (Dawn).  Mr. Bhatti has also asked the Punjab government to reinvestigate the case and to provide Aasia with security in jail. Aasia Bibi’s husband and lawyer say that they have yet to be contacted by the government (AFP).

The Jinnah Institute's Board of Advisors and its President Sherry Rehman are amongst many who have appealed for a review of the case and a repeal of the Blasphemy Law. The Pope Benedict has also appealed for the release of Aasia Bibi (JI Statement). In his weekly public address, Pope Benedict XVI said that Christians in Pakistan "are often victims of violence and discrimination" (Telegraph, BBC).

As international condemnation of Aasia Bibi’s sentencing continues to pour in, with human rights organization Amnesty International being the latest to ask for her sentence to be commuted along with a review of the Blasphemy Laws (Amnesty), Aasia Bibi has told human rights representatives that she has not had access to a lawyer throughout her trial.

According to a statement from Womens Action Forum member Ayra, who met Aasia Bibi after her sentencing along with Misba Momin, a member of the National Commission on the Status of Women and Nighat Hafeez, a lawyer from Shirkat Gah, Aasia Bibi says “she was forced by her coworkers, all women, to embrace Islam while she was working on a farm on June 8, 2009 that led to a discussion on the religious beliefs of two communities. Following this, a number of hot exchanges took place between her and the Muslim women. After 8 days the complainant, Qari Muhammad Salim, using three Muslim women as witnesses, lodged an FIR against her, based on which she was arrested.

What should concern human rights activists, among many other lapses of her rights, is the fact that Aasia Bibi has now disclosed that she had no access to any lawyer or counsel during her long ordeal in jail. It is even more shocking that even on the day she heard herself being sentenced to death, she was not accompanied by any lawyer. She further stated that she was asked to put her thumbprint on papers that she knew nothing about in court, while no one was deputed by the court to explain it to her.

Aasia Bibi further stated that during the investigation held by SP Muhammad Amin Bokhari she begged for pardon several times as she had no comprehension of her offence or what actually constitutes blasphemy. She said she has two daughters within the age bracket of 12 to 14 years.”

According to Zia Awan, a noted human rights lawyer, cases that involve capital punishment cannot proceed without the appointment of a lawyer for the accused. Awan says, “If they (Aasia’s family) could not arrange for a lawyer, the court has to appoint a proper lawyer for the accused. Additionally, the accused has to be satisfied with the appointed lawyer, this is very important.” Awan adds that the accused also has the right to cross-examine the witnesses during court proceedings.

The complainant in Aasia Bibi’s case, Qari Salim, told a CNN reporter that “her death sentence was one of the happiest moments of his life. "Tears of joy poured from my eyes," said Qari Salim (CNN).

The Blasphemy Law was amended in 1982 and 1986 under General Zia’s regime and is made up primarily of Section 295 B and C of the Pakistan Penal Code. Under the law, the sentence for committing blasphemy is imprisonment and a death sentence. In 1982, the Pakistan Penal Code was amended to include the sentence for defiling the Quran with life sentence. Section 295C stipulates that those making derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) will be awarded the death penalty (Constitution of Pakistan).

Thousands of cases of blasphemy have been reported in Pakistan in the past 15 years, a jump from 9 cases from 1929-1982. Most of these cases are allegedly based on false claims.

However, in many cases, those accused for blasphemy have been killed before their case even reached the sentencing stage, or they were killed in jail. As recently as November 14th, 2010, an accused in a blasphemy case was shot dead in Lahore near his house, after being granted bail in the case (Express Tribune). The Blasphemy Law has been used against non-Muslims as an instrument of persecution, mostly to settle personal vendettas. In some incidents, the accused persons have languished in jail for years before their cases ever went to trial. On July 22nd 2010, the Lahore High Court released a 60-year-old mentally ill woman after 14 years of imprisonment after no evidence was found against her (Express Tribune). On July 30th and August 1st 2009, seven Christians were burnt alive in Gojra, Punjab and dozens injured after riots broke out on the allegation that a Christian girl committed blasphemy against the Holy Quran. A church, nearly a hundred houses were burned and another hundred homes were ransacked (Daily Times). In April 2008, Jagdesh Kumar a Hindu factory worker, was lynched to death by his colleagues, after he was accused of committing blasphemy in Karachi. The autopsy report says the cause of death was acute head injury resulting from hard and blunt objects (HRCP). These are amongst some of the many instances of injustices that have taken place under the charges of committing blasphemy.

The Jinnah Institute reiterates that the Blasphemy Laws must be repealed and urgently reviewed by an act of Parliament and has called on the Lahore High Court to take up the appeal under due process in order to give Aasia Bibi a fair trial.

Sherry Rehman, in her capacity as Member of Parliament, has moved a repeal as well as a review of the Blasphemy Law in two separate bills.