WHAT on earth did Aasia Bibi do to merit the dubious distinction of becoming the first woman in Pakistan to be sentenced to death for blasphemy? Basically, she, a Christian, and a peasant to boot, had the gall to feel insulted.
Why? Because Aasia’s fellow workers, all daily wage farmhands from the village of Ittanwali in Sheikhupura district, claimed that the water she served was ‘unclean’ because of her faith.
Aasia Bibi dared express her outrage at this act of brazen prejudice, maintained that her faith was as good as any and refused to convert to Islam. Up to that point, this was a minor altercation brought on perhaps by a combination of ignorance and blazing tempers due to excessive, underpaid toil in the blistering summer heat.
But little did Aasia Bibi know that life was never going to be the same again after the events of that day in June 2009. A few days later, her perfectly sane reaction resulted, as is often the case, in a frenzied mob led by a local mullah attempting to attack her for blasphemy and the police taking her into ‘protective custody’. And depressingly, as is the case equally often, once in their custody, the police found it expedient to charge Aasia under the heinous Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code otherwise known as the blasphemy law rather than hold accountable those who threatened her life.
Thereafter, Aasia rapidly made the journey from police lockup in Nankana to under-trial prisoner at Sheikhupura District Jail.
Aasia Bibi’s case is so unremarkable, so commonplace, so routine in its casually callous violation of basic rights that it did not even register in the public consciousness. And, of course, it is no secret that the belief that Christians, and non-Muslims in general, are ‘unclean’, though not propagated by any known school of Islamic thought, has widespread currency, particularly in Punjab. In all likelihood, the police felt the mob was justified. There is a thin line between faith-based lack of hygiene and blasphemy goes this logic. And it is crossed if you refuse to view your faith as filth.
But Pakistan’s lower-level judiciary managed through a shockingly bigoted judgment passed on Nov 7 to bring Aasia Bibi’s case to centre stage. In sentencing Aasia Bibi to death under Section 295 C, Judge Naveed Iqbal of the Sheikhupura district and sessions court “totally ruled out” any chance that Aasia was falsely implicated and said there were “no mitigating circumstances”. Apparently, the court thought that it is absolutely fine to argue that Christians are simply unclean and if they respond by accusing the allegers of bigotry, they are guilty of blasphemy.
The Sheikhupura district and sessions court judgment highlights to the world what anyone who has ever traversed the muddy waters of Pakistan’s law-enforcement and judicial system knows all too well: the investigative capacity of the police is virtually non-existent and the police habitually caves in to Islamist-inspired mobs in the name of ‘preserving public order’, particularly when it comes to vendettas against religious minorities. Too often, the lower-level judiciary lacks the training to adjudicate within the framework of the law and frequently brings its own political and social prejudices to bear in its approach to the law.
It is a sobering thought that, in contrast to the two-year training programme offered to civil servants, district judges receive barely a fortnight of orientation. These judges are meant to dispense justice without any training in judicial ethics and conduct, interpretation and application of the law, or even the basics of judgment writing. And there are complaints that they lack the staple of a proper judiciary: the capacity to dispense justice devoid of personal prejudice.
While Pakistan’s independent judiciary engages in constitutional nit-picking with the legislature and the executive, it has singularly failed to meaningfully address what should be its highest priority — putting its own house in order to ensure that there is meaningful justice delivered where it is most urgently needed, at the local level.
And finally, there is the issue of Section 295 C itself. It is ironic that the jurisprudence in favour of the controversial provision has uniformly argued that Section 295-C achieves the declared objective of preventing vigilante justice. The argument suggests that the blasphemy law prevents private citizens from killing blasphemy suspects because it offers them legal routes to carry out the persecution they intend. This argument is fallacious, morally reprehensible and seeks through legalised discrimination to relieve the state of its duty as non-partisan guarantor of the citizens’ security.
Not only is 295 C in violation of both international norms and the fundamental rights’ provisions of the Pakistani constitution, its vague all-encompassing wording allows it to be used as an instrument of political and social coercion and discrimination against some of the most disempowered sections of society — religious minorities, heterodox Muslims and the poor.
The obscene consequences of the blasphemy laws have been evident for decades now through the continued criminalisation and persecution of those the state ought to actually be protecting. Human Rights Watch has long argued that Sections 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code ought to be repealed in totality. Failure to repeal makes successive governments, and the state itself, complicit in heinous discrimination and egregious human rights abuse.”
So long as the state continues to act as a sectarian, partisan actor and the judiciary continues to uphold discriminatory laws and provide legal justifications for the misplaced values they enshrine, there will be many more victims like Aasia Bibi silently suffering in the shadows.
The writer is Senior South Asia Analyst for the New York-based Human Rights Watch.