In June 2009, Aasia bibi was out picking fruit in the fields. At midday, she went to the nearest well, picked up a cup, took a drink of cool water and then offered it to another woman. Suddenly, one of her fellow workers cried out that the water belonged to Muslim women and that Aasia who is Christian had contaminated it.
“Blasphemy!” someone shouted, a crime punishable by death in Pakistan. In that instant, with one word, Aasia’s life changed. First attacked by a mob, Aasia bibi was then thrown into prison, and later sentenced to be hanged. For the past seven years, Aasia has been held in appalling conditions. Her family members have had to flee their village under threat from vengeful extremists, and public figures who came to her defence — in 2011 the then governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, and the then federal minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti — were brutally murdered. In 2014, a Pakistani court upheld the sentence of death for Aasia bibi’s alleged crime of making derogatory statements about Prophet Mohammed (pbuh); however, later in the court she denied the allegation, and claimed she could not even think of speaking against the prophet of Islam.
But on October 13, 2016, with the eyes of the world watching, a different kind of a dramatic situation happened in the courtroom when the Supreme Court judge, Justice Iqbal Hameed-ur-Rehman, one of the judges of Aasia bibi’s hearing panel recused himself, saying he had a conflict of interest since he was part of the panel of judges in the Salmaan Taseer case — who was murdered by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri — for helping Aasia bibi and speaking out about Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws.
Thus, Aasia bibi’s last hearing started and ended in only a few minutes. The senior-most judge on the panel, Justice Saqib Nisar, adjourned the court for an indefinite time, and announced that the case would be sent to the Chief Justice of Pakistan to re-schedule a new hearing excluding Justice Rehman.
The strange circumstances of the court’s refusal to hear the case begs a question that the point raised by the judge could have been done before the hearing date, and not on the day when so many from the Christian world were waiting for the verdict of the hearing.
To be continued
Consider the following circumstances: some weeks ago, 150 leading Muslim clerics, mostly Sunnis, issued a fatwa declaring that Aasia bibi must be put to death. In addition, leading campaigners against her sent a clear message to the masses that anyone who helps her would be punished. Hence, in the current political atmosphere of Pakistan, even the judges found themselves in a difficult situation.
National and international media were closely covering the case. Aasia bibi’s lawyer, Saif-ul-Malook, tried to argue before the court that since the entire world was watching, the hearing should not be delayed, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. If the hearing had not been delayed and Aasia bibi had been acquitted, the judges would have experienced backlash from extremists, and their lives would most likely have been in danger, as would have been the lives of Aasia bibi and her immediate family.
As it was, Aasia bibi was not even brought into the court due to security reasons. However, her husband, Ashiq Masih, was there to see the final outcome of the case, and was terrified in the presence of fundamentalists who had gathered in the courtroom. While the judges of the panel were very much aware of the international push for Aasia’s freedom, they were also aware that internally, Islamic clerics fiercely opposed these efforts, and had planned a nationwide response to counter any decision against their wishes.
Taken into the mix as well is the weakened government, where the ruling party is accused of corruption as exposed in the Panama leaks. In addition, the government is dealing with severe tension at the border with India in the occupied Kashmir territory. Apparently, it was in the interest of the government that Aasia bibi’s case should be left undecided — perhaps permanently. In the present scenario, the government of Pakistan could not have handled the pressure of Islamic fundamentalists if the court had overturned her sentence. And if the court had upheld the sentence, Aasia bibi’s execution would have put Pakistan in a precarious situation internationally.
By choosing a delaying tactic, the judiciary and the government saved their skin. It is sadly evident that in the present circumstances in Pakistan, there will be no justice for Aasia bibi. Once again she has been pushed into the shadow of uncertainty. The poor soul has been left to die in solitary confinement. In the foreseeable future, it seems like a dream that she will get justice in this so-called pluralistic society. The ongoing agitation of fundamentalists in one of the provincial capitals is a clear suggestion that nothing less than Aasia bibi’s hanging is acceptable. The banners with #hangAsia slogans are evidence that hardliner religious forces will impede the country’s justice system or the government if anything goes against their desire for Aasia bibi’s death sentence.
In the given situation, leaving the matter in the hands of the Creator could be the best strategy, Who says: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”