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 against her.
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.