Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, was 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 Aasia Bibi approached the Supreme Court as a last resort, seeking repeal of her sentence.
The incident and the case
In October 2016, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) released Questions and Answers about the Aasia Bibi case.
The Q&A explains the allegations against Bibi and describes her blasphemy trial and appeal before the LHC.
What are the allegations against Aasia Bibi and when was she convicted?
Aasia 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 Aasia 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 claimed that Aasia Bibi “admitted” making these statements at a “public gathering” on June 19, 2009 and asked for forgiveness.
A trial court convicted Aasia 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 Aasia Bibi?
The prosecution presented seven witnesses to support the allegations of blasphemy against Aasia Bibi.
Two eyewitnesses, Mafia Bibi and Asma Bibi, claimed they heard Aasia 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 Aasia Bibi admit to making “blasphemous remarks” and seek pardon at the “public gathering”.
What was Aasia Bibi’s defence?
Aasia Bibi stated she had a “quarrel” with Mafia and Asma on June 14, 2009, over their refusal to drink water brought for them by Aasia 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.
Aasia 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 Aasia Bibi’s conviction?
In its judgment in Aasia 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 Aasia Bibi’s conviction and death sentence.
Further, the trial court used Aasia 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 Aasia Bibi for blasphemy.
The LHC too did not probe further into Aasia 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 Aasia 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 Aasia 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 Aasia 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 Aasia 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.
The Supreme Court stayed her execution in July 2015 and admitted her appeal for hearing.
The top court had first taken up the appeal in October 2016, but had to adjourn the matter without hearing after one of the judges recused himself from the SC bench.
Two years later, the appeal was heard earlier this month and the CJP Nisar-led bench reserved its verdict on Oct 8.
The SC on Oct 31 acquitted Aasia Bibi, after accepting her 2015 appeal against her sentence.
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 SC 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 Aasia 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.