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Disturbing Reactions on Asia Bibi's Acquittal

By Khalid Bhatti

November 2, 2018

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has acquitted Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy in 2010 and sentenced to death by a lower court. On Wednesday, Oct 31, the Supreme Court set aside the death penalty awarded by a lower court and upheld by a high court.

Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, heading the three-member bench comprising Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel, read the 56-page verdict.

It seems that Supreme Court has been consistent in its judgments on such sensitive cases. The higher judiciary upheld the death sentence of Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer. But the executive and parliament are failing us. Both are not ready to abandon the decades-old policy of appeasing and supporting the religious right. This policy has spread hatred, intolerance, extremism and bigotry in society.

While one is glad that the Supreme Court set free a poor and helpless women who has already suffered a lot, it is also disturbing that she will not be able to live in this country even after proving her innocence in the highest court of this land. She will continue to fear for her life since we have failed to build a progressive, plural, tolerant, enlightened and rational society.

Let us not forget that the brave and courageous governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, lost his life in the struggle to get justice for Aasia Bibi when he was killed by his police guard, Mumtaz Qadri.

The reaction of the Tehreek-e- Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) on Aasia Bibi’s acquittal is not surprising at all since TLP leaders had been making threatening speeches against Supreme Court judges ever since they reserved the verdict in the beginning of October. These extremists had been preparing their followers for weeks to come out on the streets in case of Aasia Bibi’s acquittal.

So as soon as Supreme Court announced the verdict, crowds started to emerge in different cities to block the traffic and disturb routine life. No arrangement was made to deal with the highly charged crowds in different cities.

Prime Minister Imran Khan appeared on TV screens hours later to address the nation on this issue. He showed his displeasure over the actions and speeches of TLP leaders and supporters and condemned the words they had used against the judiciary and the military.

This is not the first time that the leaders of the TLP have used abusive and highly objectionable language in their speeches. They used similar derogatory language and threats during their Islamabad sit-in in November 2017.

The PML-N government of the time, and its ministers, was saying the same thing about the TLP and its sit-in at that time. But the PTI and Imran Khan had other views on that issue.

At that time, Supreme Court justices, Justice Mushir Alam and Justice Qazi Faiz Isa made the right observation about the political motives of that sit-in in their order in November 2017. “The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) is determined to exploit the situation and gain political mileage to gain support...,” said a six-page order.

The Supreme Court has sent a clear message that it will uphold the law and constitution under any circumstances. It is now time for the legislature and the executive to stand firm and refuse to succumb to the pressure of religious bigotry.

We have learnt from our past mistakes that the use of religion for short-term political gains can have long-term consequences. We might have to pay a heavy price to for such actions.

The ruling class is not ready to change its decades-old policy of exploiting people’s religious sentiments for political gains. Which is why religious leaders have been successfully employing the same tactics and policies over the years. This policy of appeasement and surrender has brought catastrophic consequences for us. Our economy has lost billions of dollars. Thousands of lives have been lost, including those of our brave men in uniform. Our international image has also been tarnished. But who cares?

Our downward spiral serves the interests of some power and social elite, and also marginalises secular, progressive and liberal forces. While some are made to acquiesce via the gun, there are those who will continue to spread hatred, bigotry and extremist ideas through their sermons and religiously-motivated political speeches. Such groups are allowed to do as they please in order to appease them.

These forces want superiority over parliament. They also want the continued acceptance of their interpretation of religion and the law. They want to eliminate any debate on these issues within and outside parliament.

Various right-wing political parties and extremist groups have succeeded in their agenda to render the elected parliament ineffective by not allowing it to debate the major political and social issues that the country faces. The current protest seeks to maintain this hegemony over religious matters. They want to make decisions on the streets instead of in parliament and other legal and constitutional forums.

The writer is a freelance journalist.