Dawn.com — Updated October 13, 2016
The family of Asia Bibi is waiting anxiously for the Supreme Court to announce her appeal in a case that has been ongoing for over six years.
Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, has been on death row since 2010. She was accused of committing blasphemy in 2009. A trial court had found her guilty of the crime and awarded her the death sentence. The Lahore High Court (LHC) upheld the sentence.
In 2011, former Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who spoke out in support of Bibi, was gunned down in broad daylight in Islamabad. His assassin Mumtaz Qadri was executed earlier in 2016 after the court found him guilty of murder.
The lawyers of Bibi have approached the SC as a last resort, seeking repeal of her sentence.
A day before the hearing of Asia’s final appeal challenging her conviction and death sentence for blasphemy before a bench of the Supreme Court, [International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) released Questions and Answers about the case.
The Q&A explains the allegations against Asia Bibi and describes her blasphemy trial and appeal before the LHC.
What are the allegations against Asia Bibi and when was she convicted?
Asia Bibi was convicted for blasphemy under section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code for allegedly defaming Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The offence carries mandatory death penalty under Pakistani law.
The allegations against Asia Bibi are that she made three “defamatory and sarcastic” statements about the Prophet (PBUH) on June 14, 2009, during an argument with three Muslim women while the four of them were picking fruit in a field.
Read more: The untold story of Pakistan’s blasphemy law
The prosecution also claims Asia Bibi “admitted” making these statements at a “public gathering” on June 19, 2009 and asked for forgiveness.
A trial court convicted Asia Bibi for blasphemy in November 2010 and sentenced her to death. The Lahore High Court (LHC)upheld her conviction and confirmed her death sentence in October 2014.
The Supreme Court (SC) admitted her appeal in July 2015. The first hearing of the appeal before the SC was scheduled to take place on October 13, 2016.
What was the evidence in support of the allegations against Asia Bibi?
The prosecution presented seven witnesses to support the allegations of blasphemy against Asia bibi.
Two eyewitnesses, Mafia Bibi and Asma Bibi, claimed they heard Asia Bibi make the allegedly blasphemous remarks, and later “admit” to making the statements during a “public gathering” a few days later.
Other witnesses included the complainant Qari Muhammad Salaam, a local cleric, who claimed he heard about the alleged blasphemous statements from Mafia and Asma and got a criminal complaint for blasphemy registered with the police; three police officers who registered and investigated the case; and a local resident, Muhammad Afzal, who alleged he heard Asia Bibi admit to making “blasphemous remarks” and seek pardon at the “public gathering”.
What was Asia Bibi’s defense?
Asia Bibi stated she had a “quarrel” with Mafia and Asma on June 14, 2009, over their refusal to drink water brought for them by Asia Bibi because she was Christian.
She claimed “some hot words were exchanged” during the argument, after which Mafia and Asma, alongside Qari Muhammad Salaam and his wife (who taught Asma and Mafia the Quran), fabricated the blasphemy case against her.
Asia Bibi also stated that she had “great respect and honour for the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and the Holy Quran” and never made the alleged blasphemous remarks.
What are some of the problems with Asia Bibi’s conviction?
In its judgment in Asia Bibi’s case, the LHC conceded “the defence has not defended its case with the required seriousness…”
Yet, despite acknowledging possible violations of the right of a fair trial, particularly the right to an adequate defense, the court went on to uphold Asia Bibi’s conviction and death sentence.
Further, the trial court used Asia Bibi’s statement as an admission of guilt, finding that the “hot words” exchanged between her and “the Muslim ladies” were “switched into a religious matter”, and concluding that the “hot words” must have been “nothing other than the blasphemy”.
Curiously, however, the trial court rejected the notion that the altercation over water was a possible motive for the prosecution eyewitnesses to falsely implicate Asia Bibi for blasphemy.
The LHC too did not probe further into Asia Bibi’s statement, and held that there was no possible “ill will” between the eyewitnesses and the accused for them to fabricate the blasphemy allegations.
Both courts also disregarded discrepancies in the accounts of the witnesses regarding the “public gathering” where Asia Bibi allegedly “admitted” her guilt.
These discrepancies included significant differences in the number of people allegedly present at the “public gathering” (ranging from 100 to 2,000 in the different testimonies); how Asia Bibi was brought to the “public hearing”, and how long the “hearing” lasted.
The courts also failed to apply “tazkia-tul-shahood” (inquiry undertaken by the court to establish the credibility of witnesses), without which defendants cannot be convicted or punished in hadh (capital punishment) cases for certain offences under Pakistani law.
During the entire course of the proceedings, neither court considered which of the three statements attributed to Asia Bibi were “blasphemous” and why, or what was the “reasonable person” standard in the interpretation of section 295-C to meet the threshold of blasphemy.
Additionally, both courts did not consider whether Asia Bibi possessed the requisite criminal intent to commit the crime of blasphemy, despite the Federal Shariat Court’s ruling that blasphemy is an “intentional or reckless wrong”.
The prosecution’s failure to prove all elements of the offence, including the requisite intent to defame Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) calls into question the convictions by the trial court and LHC.
How does the application of blasphemy laws violate Pakistan’s human rights obligations?
The application of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws has been denounced for a variety of reasons.
Last year, the Supreme Court of Pakistan held that individuals accused of blasphemy “suffer beyond proportion or repair” in the absence of adequate safeguards against misapplication or misuse of such blasphemy laws.
Confirming the SC’s findings, ICJ’s 2015 study on the implementation of blasphemy laws in Pakistan found that more than 80 per cent of convictions by trial courts are overturned on appeal, very often because appellate courts find evidence and complaints fabricated based on “personal or political vendettas”.
The ICJ further found the following systematic and widespread fair trial violations in the application of the blasphemy laws, which also apply in Asia Bibi’s case:
Intimidation and harassment of judges and lawyers that impede on the independence of the judiciary and the right to a defense;
Demonstrable bias and prejudice against defendants by judges during the course of blasphemy proceedings and in judgments;
Violations of the right to effective assistance of counsel;
Rejection of bail and prolonged pretrial detention;
Incompetent investigation and prosecution that do not meet due diligence requirements under the law;
The prosecution and detention of people living with mental disabilities;
Inhumane conditions of detention and imprisonment, including prolonged solitary confinement; and
Vaguely defined offences that undermine the rule of law because they leave the door open to selective prosecution and interpretation.
The ICJ opposes the criminalisation of the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and religion or belief in Pakistan in the shape of the blasphemy laws and considers them a flagrant violation of Pakistan’s international human rights obligations, including its obligations to respect the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of expression; and equal treatment before the law.
Furthermore, mandatory death sentence — including under 295-C of the Penal Code — violates Pakistan’s obligations to respect the rights to life, to a fair trial, and to prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, said ICJ.
Supreme Court adjourns hearing of Asia Bibi case
AFP | Nasir Iqbal
Updated about 3 hours ago
The Supreme Court on Thursday adjourned a hearing of the final appeal against the execution of Asia Bibi, accused for blasphemy.
Police and troops had been stationed across Islamabad as the apex court readied to hear the appeal of Bibi who has been on death row since 2010.
One of the three-judge bench, Justice Iqbal Hameed-ur-Rehman, told the court he had to recuse himself, claiming a conflict of interest.
"I was a part of the bench that was hearing the case of Salman Taseer, and this case is related to that," he told the court. A letter was written to the chief justice to appoint another judge to the bench.
The SC did not immediately set a new date for Bibi’s appeal.
In 2011, former Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who spoke out in support of Bibi, was gunned down in broad daylight in Islamabad. His assassin Mumtaz Qadri was executed earlier in 2016 after the court found him guilty of murder. Justice Rehman was chief justice on the Islamabad High Court which heard Qadri’s appeal in 2011.
The allegations against Bibi date back to June 2009, when she was labouring in a field and a row broke out with some Muslim women she was working with.
Asia Bibi, accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) during an argument with a Muslim woman over a bowl of water, was convicted and sentenced to death in 2010 despite her advocates maintaining her innocence and insisting the accusers held grudges against her.
She was asked to fetch water, but the Muslim women objected, saying that as a non-Muslim she was unfit to touch the water bowl.
The women went to a local cleric and accused Bibi of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), a charge punishable by death under legislation that rights groups say is routinely abused to settle personal vendettas.
Bibi’s supporters maintain her innocence and insist it was a personal dispute, and the Vatican has called for her release.
But successive appeals have been rejected, and if the SC bench eventually upholds Bibi’s conviction, her only recourse will be a direct appeal to the president for clemency.
If that fails, she could become the first person in Pakistan to be executed for blasphemy.
The repercussions for minorities, human rights and the blasphemy laws would be "tremendous", says Shahzad Akbar, a human rights lawyer.
Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in Pakistan. Anyone even accused of insulting religion risks death at the hands of vigilantes.
Rights groups complain the controversial legislation is often abused to carry out personal vendettas, mainly against minority groups.
Observers had warned of possible violence if Bibi’s conviction was overturned, with some calling the case a battle for Pakistan’s soul as the state walks a line between upholding human rights and appeasing hardliners.
A senior police official told AFP that up to 3,000 security personnel had been deployed in the capital earlier Thursday.
Zohra Yusuf, chair of the independent Human Rights Commission in Pakistan, told AFP the appeal delay was "regrettable", noting that Bibi was already being held in solitary confinement due to security concerns.
The judges may be "apprehensive", she said, adding that after the SC announced its decision to uphold Mumtaz Qadri’s death sentence, justices had to sneak out the back door to the court.
"It’s a sensitive case. I think they (the judges) have realised that if Asia Bibi [is] acquitted, they may be putting their own lives on the line," Yusuf said.