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SAIFUL Mulook, the lawyer for Aasia Bibi, leaves the Supreme Court after her conviction was overturned on Wednesday.—Reuters
SAIFUL Mulook, the lawyer for Aasia Bibi, leaves the Supreme Court after her conviction was overturned on Wednesday.—Reuters

• Apex court reverses death sentence awarded by trial court and upheld by LHC
• Christian mother of five being freed after eight years
• 34-page verdict discusses misuse of blasphemy law

ISLAMABAD: In a landmark judgement, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the death sentence of a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, convicted on a blasphemy charge and ordered her immediate release from jail after around eight years.

“This appeal is allowed, the judgements of the [Lahore] high court as well as the trial court are reversed and consequently the conviction as also the sentence of death awarded to the appellant is set aside and she is acquitted of the charge,” announced Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar, who headed the bench that had reserved its ruling on her appeal on Oct 8.

Aasia Bibi, a mother of five, was awarded capital punishment by a trial court in November 2010 for committing alleged blasphemy during an altercation with a Muslim woman in Sheikhupura over a glass of water in June 2009. The Lahore High Court upheld the decision of the trial court in its October 2014 ruling, which was finally reversed by the Supreme Court after hearing her appeal.

“Keeping in mind the evidence produced by the prosecution against the alleged blasphemy committed by the appellant, the prosecution has categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt,” the chief justice observed.

The 34-page verdict, which begins with Qalma-i-Shahadat, concludes with a Hadith of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him): “Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I (Prophet Muhammad) will complain against the person on the Day of Judgement.”

The entire judgement is punctuated with verses from the Holy Quran and sayings of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).

“It is a well settled principle of law that one who makes an assertion has to prove it,” wrote the chief justice. Thus, the onus rested on the prosecution to prove guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt throughout the trial.

‘62 killed over blasphemy charges even before trial’

Since 1990, the judgement recalls, 62 people have been murdered as a result of blasphemy allegations even before trial. And even the prominent figures, who stressed the fact that the blasphemy laws have been misused by some individuals, met with serious repercussions. A latest example of the misuse of this law was the murder of Mashal Khan by a mob on the premises of Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, in April 2017.

According to the judgement, it is not for individuals or a gathering (mob) to decide as to whether an act falling within the purview of Section 295-C has been committed or not, because it is the mandate of the court to make such decisions after conducting a fully qualified trial on the basis of credible evidence.

Presumption of innocence remains throughout the case until such time the prosecution on the evidence satisfies the court beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of the offence alleged against him.

There cannot be a fair trial, which is itself the primary purpose of criminal jurisprudence, if the judges have not been able to clearly elucidate the rudimentary concept of the standard of proof that prosecution must meet in order to obtain a conviction.

Ramsha Jahangir
Ramsha Jahangir

Two concepts i.e. “proof beyond reasonable doubt” and “presumption of innocence” are so closely linked together that the same must be presented as one unit, the judgement says, adding that if the presumption of innocence is a golden thread to criminal jurisprudence, then proof beyond a reasonable doubt is silver and these two threads are forever intertwined in the fabric of criminal justice system.

As such the expression “proof beyond reasonable doubt” is of fundamental importance to criminal justice and one of the principles which seeks to ensure that no innocent person is convicted.

Where there is any doubt in the prosecution story, benefit should be given to the accused which is quite consistent with the safe administration of criminal justice, the chief justice observed, adding that suspicion howsoever grave or strong could never be a proper substitute for the standard of proof required in a criminal case i.e. beyond reasonable doubt.

“If the prosecution witnesses are found inimical towards the accused, she deserves acquittal on the principle of the benefit of the doubt,” the chief justice said.

In his additional note, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa observed that blasphemy was a serious offence but the insult of the appellant’s religion and religious sensibilities by the complainant party and then mixing trust with falsehood in the name of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) was also not short of being blasphemous.

The judgement stated that the prosecution had categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. It set aside the conviction and ordered release of Aasia Bibi from jail forthwith if not required in any other criminal case.

Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2018

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