Acquittal leads to turmoil in Pakistan

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Eight years after she was charged with blasphemy, Asia Bibi has been acquitted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan this week on the grounds of insufficient evidence. That decision has thrown the country into turmoil, with several fundamentalist groups calling for her execution and protesting the acquittal. In 2010, Asia Bibi, a poor berry-picker whose family were the only Christians in her village, was charged with blasphemy when her Muslim neighbors accused her of insulting the Prophet after she drank water from the same glass as them. Under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, the accusation on her could result in her death.

And sentenced to death she was. Her final appeal remained pending in the Supreme court for 8 years, until Oct. 31, 2018, when the Supreme Court acquitted her. Several clerics condemned the acquittal and called for her death. The judges who delivered the verdict have received death threats. Reporters were afraid to cover the case, as they too had received death threats from protesters. Messages were sent to soldiers asking them to rebel against officers. The situation worsened to the point that on Nov. 2, the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan ended up negotiating a deal with the Islamist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Party, which was very vocal in demanding Bibi’s execution, that even after her release, Bibi and her family would not be allowed to leave the country and that some arrested protesters will be released.

On Saturday, fearing for his life, her lawyer Saif Mulook fled the country. He has more than enough reasons to fear. Over the last eight years, this case has brought out the weaknesses in Pakistan’s social, political, and legal systems, all of which are heavily reliant on the dictates of the nation’s official religion, Islam. The infamous blasphemy laws are often used to target religious minorities and are used to persecute them and to settle scores in case of dispute with false allegations. Over 60 people had been murdered extrajudicially since 1990 after they were accused of blasphemy. The only two political leaders who supported Bibi in this arduous journey lasting eight years, Salman Tasseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, were both assassinated by hardliners for advocating against the blasphemy laws.

Perhaps Bibi would have met the same fate had it not been for the immense international pressure on the government (The European Union had informed the Pakistani government that the future of the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) status of Pakistan is directly linked to the outcome of the case, and the Pope had called Asia Bibi a “martyr”), and also the fact that witnesses in the case had often contradicted each other’s statements or retracted their own, leading to her acquittal. The acquittal certainly betters the independent image of the Pakistani judicial system, which didn’t buckle under the intense domestic pressure from hardliners. That doesn’t change the fact that eight years of Bibi’s life have been stolen away, she and her family have faced immense violence, her humanity has been trivialized and the ugly head of intolerance has reared its head, all because Bibi is a religious minority from a lower caste, whose neighbors held a grudge against her because of her faith.

Although many countries had offered asylum to Asia Bibi and her family, the new deal reached by the government and the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Party will put her on the country’s no-fly list, preventing her from leaving the country. The government is blatantly choosing to appease the bloodthirsty fundamentalist political factions over the safety of an individual who has been deemed innocent by the highest court in the land. Pakistan’s political machinery has always encouraged heightened friction between religions and incites people for the fulfillment of their own agendas as a means to appeal to the sentiments of the religious majority.

Jamaat-e-Islaami (JI) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), both of which were previously accused of terrorism (LeT has masterminded the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai which killed over 200 people), and several other Clerics joined hands with Tehreek-e-Labbaik to pour into the streets of Islamabad, demanding the reversal of the acquittal. After all, as Antonio says in the Merchant of Venice, “the Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”

The saga of Asia Bibi’s fight for justice will continue until the final review petition is heard by the Supreme Court. Until then, it’s the might of a frenzied mob of fundamentalists versus the unwavering conviction of the berry-picker whose inner strength has led her through eight years of suffering.