Four and a half years after she was first charged with blasphemy, what exactly is happening with Aasia Bibi and her case. People seem to have forgotten Aasia Bibi while she languishes in one jail or the other for the last four and a half years.
Her appeal for review of her death conviction remains pending before the Lahore High Court.
In June 2009, Aasia Bibi was asked by her co-workers to fetch water while working on a farm in Lahore’s outskirts. Some of the Muslim women are said to have refused to drink it because they considered the utensil “unclean” after being touched by a Christian woman.
An argument ensued where Bibi allegedly uttered derogatory remarks about Prophet Muhammad. A few days later Bibi was charged of blasphemy and arrested from arrested in Ittanwalai village.
Bibi, a blasphemy accused under Section 295-C of Pakistan Penal Code, was sentenced to death by a local court in December 2009.
Under the blasphemy laws, a high court must confirm a death sentence from a lower court. Due to this legal procedure, many of those who are convicted remain on death row for years.
Aasia’s husband Ashiq Masih said, “She is scared. There is no hope for her release”.
He recalled how a mob dragged his wife to a local police station, where she was jailed and charged with blasphemy. “She has not done anything,” he maintained.
Bibi’s husband and five children are living in hiding. Fearing violence from extremists, they prefer to hide their identity and often relocate their home.
In June 2013, when they went to see her in jail in Sheikhupura, they were told that Bibi had been shifted to the Central Jail in Multan. This came as a surprise both for the victim’s counsel and the family.
The case of Aasia Bibi gained prominence when Salmaan Taseer, then the Punjab governor, went to jail to meet her and to assure her of all possible legal help. Taseer had maintained that the case against Bibi was fabricated and based on wrong grounds. He had moved a request to the former president of Pakistan to pardon Bibi’s sentence.
Taseer’s open support for Aasia Bibi cost him his life. His police guard, Mumtaz Qadri, who thought Taseer was a supporter of a blasphemer, killed him on Jan 4, 2011 in Islamabad.
An Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) awarded Qadri a death penalty in October 2011, nine months after he had committed the murder. His appeal against the conviction is also pending before the court.
About two months after the assassination of Taseer, the then federal minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was also killed in Islamabad for talking about the need to revise the controversial blasphemy laws.
Aasia Bibi’s case had prompted widespread international attention. Pope Benedict XVI had also issued a condemnation statement.
The complainant of the case, a cleric of the local mosque in Bibi’s village, is not a witness in the case. He believed what the local women told him. She was sent to jail and the case was lodged a few days after the incident occurred.
Blasphemy laws have been misused to settle personal scores or to victimise the marginalised sections of society and religious minorities. The mere fact of being a Christian or an Ahmadi in Pakistan makes an individual vulnerable to the misuse of blasphemy laws.
There are enough legal grounds which can help Bibi’s release conditionally, if the appellate court hears her case at the earliest on humanitarian grounds.
The known blasphemy cases in Pakistan show that from 1953 to July 2012, there were 434 offenders of blasphemy laws in Pakistan and among them were, 258 Muslims (Sunni/Shia), 114 Christians, 57 Ahmadis, and 4 Hindus.
The report compiled by the Center for Research and Security Studies mentions that since 1990, 52 people have been extra-judicially murdered, for being implicated in blasphemy charges. Among these were 25 Muslims, 15 Christians, five Ahmadis, one Buddhist and one Hindu.
According to different reports, more than 1,000 people have been charged in Pakistan for committing offences against blasphemy laws. Among them are young, old, and children belonging to all faiths and creed. Some of them are even mentally challenged, physically impaired or illiterate.
The report observes that in comparison to Pakistan, blasphemy cases and laws in other three Muslim states Indonesia, Malaysia and Iran are much less and much more moderate.
The study offers:
a. A historical overview of the evolution of legislation on blasphemy;
b. The impact of the law as a preventive toll to blasphemous acts; and
c. How do other Muslim countries deal with this offence?
The report draws on newspaper reports, court cases, and different opinions expressed in the national press to provide substantial information for the readers and to help them draw conclusions based on factual socio-political realities. The intent of this report is not to draw a conclusion in favor or opposition of but to bring all the facts before the readers and let them draw conclusions on their own. However, an equally important issue is the misuse of this law in a society to settle personal feuds, tribal and community rivalries.
The circumstances which led to the traumatic ordeal that Rimsha Masih and poor Christian families of Joseph Colony faced recently, has amply demonstrated the potential for abuse of the blasphemy law – a law that is meant to prevent desecration of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) but can easily be turned against individuals or groups by vested interests. The hazards associated with it, particularly for the innocent, are huge and require an extremely strict scrutiny of the existing procedures. Desecration or denigration of any sacred personality, including the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) must be condemned and prevented but this must happen through due process of law and not mob-justice. The latest incidents have made a critical scrutiny of the procedures involved imperative as never before.
The Blasphemy laws were first introduced in the Indian subcontinent by its British colonial rulers.
Before that, orthodox Islamic jurisprudence was briefly enforced during Mughal rule on the subcontinent but history is silent if there were any blasphemy laws prevalent at that time.
Communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims before the partition of the subcontinent backed by political interests of different groups, including colonial rulers, were the main reason behind enactment of blasphemy laws.
As efforts by leaders like Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah failed to forge Hindu-Muslim unity against the colonial rule, tensions between religious communities began to rise. These tensions led to several communal riots in undivided India. Unscrupulous elements from both sides exploited the situation and left no stone unturned to create hatred against one another which also resulted in writing and publication of hate material by both sides.
The growing chasm between Hindus and Muslims suited the designs of colonial powers to perpetuate their rule and also provided them with an opportunity to enact blasphemy laws.
The British government promulgated four laws in the undivided India to deal with the issues of blasphemy.
Pakistan inherited these laws after it was carved out of India in 1947. With the death of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali within a year of independence, the newly founded nation lost its way how to move forward, resulting in political chaos and intrigue, accentuated eventually by the military interventions.
The ensuing tussle and tension between the political forces of East Pakistan and West Pakistan gave an opportunity to conservative religious lobby to sow seeds of hatred among masses. There was tension between Hindus and Muslims in Eastern wing while in West Pakistan a forceful movement led by Majlis-e-Ahrar was launched against Ahmadi, a minority sect seen heretical by the mainstream Muslim communities.
The Ahmadis were ultimately declared non-Muslims officially by Pakistan in 1974 but the bigotry approach of Islam by former military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq was the main reason that exacerbated communal and religious tensions in Pakistan. He introduced exemplary reforms in blasphemy laws, some of them Ahmadi-specific, which were later exploited by the religious extremists. Ironically, blasphemy-related cases have seen a phenomenal increase after introduction of changes into blasphemy laws by the Zia regime.
From 1851 to 1947, when the British ruled this region and the hatred between the Muslims and Hindus was at the pinnacle, there were only seven blasphemy-related incidents but during Zia’s rule along (1977-1988) alone, as many as 80 blasphemy cases were reported to the courts. As a whole, between 1987 and Aug. 2012 we have seen almost 247 blasphemy cases registered or raised, directly affecting lives of 435 persons approximately.
The absence of democratic rule or little regard for due process of law has been the major contributing factor to the rise of communal tensions in Pakistan. Coincidently or conspicuously the emergence of most of the dictatorships were always preceded by the communal and political unrest in the country.
General Zia-ul-Haq (July 1977-August 1988) is remembered by his opponents and supporters alike. His opponents accuse him of destroying whatever little liberalism and tolerance this country had while his supporters eulogize him for re-inventing the very ‘Islamic foundation’ of the country they believed, was lost after the death of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
One of the greatest sins of Zia in the eyes of the liberals is the introduction of blasphemy laws 295B, 295C, 298A, 298B, and 298C to the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), inherited from undivided India. No law in the country has ever been the cause of so many controversies as this one. The basic objective of the law, say its supporters, was to discourage people from taking the law into their hands but the opponents say it only served the interests of radicals and it was massively abused to target religious minorities by whipping up religious sentiments of the people.
Late 2010, the issue of Pakistani blasphemy law hit international headlines when former Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer visited a Christian woman Aasia Bibi who had already been sentenced to death by a court for allegedly committing blasphemy. His visit was meant to express solidarity with the convict. He later also termed the practice of blasphemy law as the Black Law practice. Taseer’s remarks ultimately culminated in his death on January 4, 2011 at the hands of his own bodyguard Mumtaz Qaderi at an upscale market in Islamabad.
Two more blasphemous incidents of that drew attention of the local and international press were against the Christian community. One was the false accusation of a Christian teenage girl, Rimsha Masih, by a cleric, Khalid Jadoon Chishti, in the suburbs of Islamabad. Enraged by the incidents, the Muslims of the adjacent locality resorted to violence against the Christian community living in the area forcing them to flee away to other locations for their safety.
Rimsha, arrested on August 16 from a suburban area of Islamabad, was accused of burning papers from the holy Quran, and later charged of blasphemy. Later after the investigations, it was found that the cleric Khalid Jadoon Chishti had concocted the case against her, who was then arrested. On 20 November 2012, Islamabad High Court acquitted Rimsha with following remarks in its judgment:
“While announcing the verdict, Chief Justice Islamabad High Court, Mr. Iqbal Hameed ur Rehman remarked that it is a highly sensitive matter and one must be extremely careful while leveling such charges against any one. Fake allegations should not be leveled against any Muslim or non-Muslim. The Chief Justice IHC, in the 15-page judgement, said no one has seen Rimsha burning any pages.
Another blasphemy case that triggered a mob of around 2,000 Muslims run riot the Joseph Colony of Christian community in Lahore was a cause of disgrace and remorse for the country and its leadership. The incident took place on 10 March 2013 when a row between two drunken, Muslim and Christian friends, set off the blasphemy allegations that later turned into a dishonorable event when the frenzied mob took the law in its hands on blasphemy accusation and torched more than 150 houses of poor Christians in the area.
What we are witnessing now has no precedence in the history of pre-Zia Pakistan and of the undivided India. The whole movement of separate homeland for the Muslims of India now appears to have lost its credence and direction. What Maulana Abul Kalam had said in his message is proving to be very relevant; “I fear it may happen that it may not be possible for you to save your own imaan.99” Do we want to continue proving him right or put a stop to it by taking another look at the facts provided in this report and decide what steps we need to take toput us back into the right direction? What’s the purpose of having laws when people are notmade to follow them? What is the purpose of repealing any law when people are allowed tomake their own law and implement it the way they like it.
Who Is The Slow Learner, Ms. Rimsha Or The Judge?
By Khalid Shahzad
In Islamabad where there are many government and non-governmental institutions working for the protection of child rights, special children rights, human rights and the rights of women, only one of them have come out calling for the release of Ms. Rimsha, the 14-year-old Christian girl who has been charged with blasphemy. It has now been revealed that Rimsha does not suffer from Down’s syndrome but is, in fact, a slow learner with a mental age of around 10 or 11.
Rimsha has been charged under the country’s blasphemy law which carries the death penalty and has now made two court appearances. In the first hearing the judge refused bail, citing the fear of retaliation by Islamic fanatics.
Today, (30 August) she was presented to the Additional Session Judge, Raja Jawad Hassan Abass, in Islamabad for her bail petition. The lawyer from the All Pakistan Minority Movement, Mr. Chaudry Tahir Nazir, who is also a member of the Punjab Provincial Assembly, produced a medical certificate from the medical board of the Poly Clinic Hospital, an official hospital, that she has been declared by the medical board to be a slow learner and illiterate, so she should be granted bail.
Rimsha has little or no education and cannot read or write; she cannot recognise any letters or numericals. This in itself should be evidence enough that she had no intention of insulting Islam by the blasphemous act of burning the Holy Book, the Quran. However, the judge refused to accept the contents of the medical report and used the excuse that, as he had not asked the lawyer to convene a medical board he was under no obligation to accept the findings. The previous board was made on the orders of President Zardari which was also refused by the Additional Session judge.
Rimsha, is being held in a very small room at the Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi. This is the same jail in which high profile terrorists are held including Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of the former governor of Punjab, who enjoys all communication facilities. In direct contrast to this, Ms. Rimsha’s cell is so small that she can barely walk about and her parents have been denied permission to visit her. This in itself is a gross violation of the most basic human rights. Religious minority groups are not expecting the judiciary to do justice for the child despite her innocence in view of the threats from powerful militant groups.
It has been witnessed in many previous cases concerning the blasphemy law that the judiciary in general is extremely biased in cases where the prosecution of religious minorities is concerned. This bias may well be the result of the well established threat of physical violence by Muslim extremists.
According to the Blasphemy Law Section 295 C and B, there is no division of age, religion, personality, gender, and educational or any mental disorder. This provides the opportunity for any Muslim to blame anyone, even another Muslim, for using blasphemous words against the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Therefore the police and culprits can use this ambiguity in the blasphemy law to kill the accused out of hand without any investigation or proof. The police and other investigation agencies rarely investigate any killing on such a complaint. In this particular case Ms. Rimsha is a slow learner and she is not able to read or write but, the Additional Session judge, in his wisdom, has seen fit to place in a situation where she is living with high profile criminals. There cannot possibly be any justification for this given her mental and educational background.
The question begs to be asked, in this instance, who is the slow learner, Ms. Rimsha or the judge?
The government of Pakistan must take charge of this matter and act according to the Declaration on the rights of disable persons, proclaimed by the UN General Assembly to respect their human dignity; offer them the same fundamental rights as their fellow-citizens; the same civil and political rights as other human beings; undertake measures designed to enable them to become as self-reliant as possible; ensure medical, psychological and functional treatment and develop their capabilities and skills to the maximum in order to hasten the process of their social integration or reintegration and finally ensure their right to economic and social security and to a decent level of living according to their capabilities, to secure and retain employment.
(About the author: Khalid Shahzad is the Director of the Dorothea Centre for Special Children and may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Under Pakistan’s strict anti-blasphemy laws, a person can be jailed for life or put to death for desecrating the Koran. But civil society organisations have reported that blasphemy charges are imposed arbitrarily, and used to justify violence and prosecution against people, including children, with many having been killed by violent mobs. Politicians who advocate a change in legislation have also been targets of deadly attacks.
Meanwhile a young man was convicted of blasphemy after he told off a group of Muslim boys for attacking his eight-year-old nephew after he refused to embrace Islam.
Teachers are taking over the responsibilities of the mullahs and turning educational institutions into seminaries
The misuse of blasphemy laws are no longer the prerogative of religious bigots or fundamentalists. It is now being used in every section of society, particularly members of the teaching staff who are eager to contribute in pushing the country towards a religious intolerant state. Indeed, the enthusiasm of the educational staff in this instance was so high that they accused a student of a minority community of blasphemy without following the basic concepts of the ethics of imparting education.
These ethics are being violated when the secrecy of examination papers are dishonoured. When an examiner asks a question of a student if he or she is not satisfied with the student’s answer the examiner has the right to fail that student. However, the examiner does not have the right to disclose the student’s answer which is the personal opinion held by that student. The attitude of the teaching staff now is to gain points from the religious leaders by pointing out those students who they believe to have made blasphemous comments mistakenly or otherwise.
In a recent case a ten-year-old Christian girl, Ms. Faryal Bhatti, misplaced a full stop in her Urdu examination paper on September 22, 2011, which has made hers and her mother’s life unbearable. Faryal was a student in Sir Syed Girls High School, Pakistan Ordinance Factory Colony, Havelian. They have been accused of hatching a conspiracy against Islam and its Last Prophet..
When completing her paper the girl, who has not studied Islam and is therefore unfamiliar with the terminology of the religion, inadvertently placed a dot incorrectly in the word, Naat, meaning a poem in praise of the Last Prophet which changed it into the word, Lanaat which means the opposite: a curse.
The teacher, Mrs. Fareeda sternly rebuked Faryal in front of the class and took the matter to the headmaster, even though the child defender herself by saying that it was a mistake. The news of her transgression spread outside the school into the community and she was labeled a blasphemer. The mosque loud speakers helped to spread the news and rallies were arranged in protest against the mother and daughter. In response to these protests the administrators of the Pakistan Ordinance Factory Colony immediately transferred the mother who was serving as a nurse at the colony’s hospital. They were asked to leave the colony immediately. Despite the mother’s abject apology and explanation that it was the simple error of a young girl who was in a hurry to complete the paper because of the time limit, no understanding was shown by the teaching staff who were more interested in gaining the favour of the uneducated and illiterate mullahs.
This is not the first case of this type. Earlier this year a 17-year-old student, Syed Samiullah, an intermediate student and resident of Mujtaba Colony Malir Halt was charged with writing derogatory remarks against the Last Prophet in his Urdu, Islamiat and Physics papers. The incident was reported to the police by the Controller of Examinations of the Intermediate Board of Education, Karachi, who attached copies of Samiullah’s answers sheets as evidence of his alleged blasphemy. He was arrested on January 28, 2011.
Syed apologised at every level from the board of education to the police and the magistrate but the educational officers, as in the case of Faryal, wanted to become more mullah-like than the mullahs and filed an FIR against him.
Syed and his family were pressurised by the educational authorities to the point where he had to confess to having committed blasphemy. The situation was exacerbated by the murder of the governor of Punjab province for his stand against the amendments to the blasphemy laws and the glorification of his assassin. No doubt Syed and his family saw a similar fate in store for him.
There are enough people in Pakistan today spreading religious hatred and intolerance and there is no need for the educationalists to swell their ranks. Teachers have the duty to teach and nothing more. While each and every person has the right to his or her own religious beliefs those beliefs should not colour their thinking when practising their professions. Contrary to the religious teachers educationalists are supposed to teach tolerance and enlightenment. The educational system must at all times remain unbiased and free from hatred. However, judging from the number of minority students and teachers themselves who are harassed because of their religious beliefs this is obviously not the case in Pakistan.
The degeneration of the teaching staff has reached the point where they are turning schools and colleges into Islamic madressas (seminaries) which are run by the very antithesis of a teacher, illiterate and uneducated mullahs. While they are receiving all the benefits, salaries and perks as required by the government grading system they are, in fact, doing the work of the mullahs. If this is not stopped now it will be harder for the government ministers and generals to reign them in at any time in the future.
The innocent error of a young girl has ruined her life and that of her mother. The government must put a stop to this biased and misguided use of the blasphemy laws. The appeasement policy of the government with regard to religious fundamentalists and their treatment of the minorities, the Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus and others, will only make it more difficult for them to act when it becomes necessary.
Impunity For Hatred
by Peter Jacob
In most countries, blasphemy is treated as a criminal offence though some laws consider it to be an administrative offence (Italy). There are other laws that provide a remedy against defamation or incitement to religious hatred through lawsuits, keeping the punishment mostly to fines and penalties.
Countries treating blasphemy as a crime but not imposing severe punishments include Sudan and Indonesia where the maximum punishment is five years imprisonment. In Jordon, Turkey and Germany, it is three years and Brazil has one year imprisonment and fine.
The US does not have a blasphemy law whereas in the UK the blasphemy laws have been neutralised or set aside by subsequent laws and precedents on civil liberties. These countries have an insignificant number of cases and violence related to blasphemy.
Pakistan stands with Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran and Afghanistan where punishment for blasphemy extends to death penalty. Pakistan stands out in them too with a record number of blasphemy cases.
While official statistics are awaited, Awaze Haq Itehad, an NGO network, collected data of 1,438 persons accused of blasphemy between 1987 and October 2014. This data shows that religious minorities, which form less than four percent of the population figure, make about fifty percent of those accused of blasphemy (Ahmadis 501, Christians 182, Hindus 26 – the religion of 10 victims could not be ascertained). Among the 60 persons who were killed in connection with blasphemy allegations since 1990, 32 were religious minorities and 28 Muslims. Twenty of the total were either attacked in police custody or killed by policemen, while 19 were killed in mob attacks.
The Punjab is the locus of the monumental abuse of human rights where 1,086 – or 76 percent – incidents took place. About 1,097 houses were looted and damaged in Khanewal, Sangla Hill, Kasur, Gojra and Lahore. Seventeen churches in Khanewal and Korian along with 10 schools and hostels were put on fire in different attacks related to blasphemy allegations between 1997 and 2013. Twenty-one percent of the remainder of blasphemy allegations and violence occurred in Sindh.
The incidents of alleged blasphemy and their aftermath in 2014 so far reflect a continuing vulnerability of lawyers and judges besides those accused and their families. In March, a Hindu temple was set on fire in Larkana after accusations of blasphemy surfaced. Later that month, Sawan Masih, the accused in the blasphemy case of Joseph Colony received a death sentence by the court which held its trial inside the jail for security reasons. On the other hand, the 133 people accused of arson in Joseph Colony one year ago were released on bail.
In May, Rashid Rehman, the lawyer representing a university teacher accused of blasphemy, was murdered after being threatened during a court hearing. In July, a Facebook message by an Ahmadi was made an excuse in Gujranwala to wage a mob attack on houses belonging to Ahmadis; this ended with three women killed and caused one miscarriage.
In September, two inmates accused of committing blasphemy in Adiala Jail Rawalpindi were fired upon by a jail guard indoctrinated by the man convicted of murdering former governor Salmaan Taseer. One of the victims, Muhammad Asghar, sustained serious injuries while Pastor Zaffar Bhatti had a narrow escape. In October, the death sentence against Aasia Bibi was confirmed by the Lahore High Court. On November 3, Shama, a brick kiln worker who was seven month pregnant, and her husband Shahzad were burnt alive over allegations of committing blasphemy.
The continuing trends include safety of the accused and their families and communities at risk, especially if they are non-Muslims; the administrative machinery is challenged by the ability of the instigators to perpetrate mob violence; vulnerability of lawyers and judges, who lack protection to facilitate the justice system; and weak policing and administration as their resources and energies are over stretched due to rising crime and terror in the country.
Each incident of alleged blasphemy forms a chain of injustices where each step leads to more violence and legal injustice. The routine administrative measures and the judicial system have failed terribly in stopping these systemic human rights violations.
Governments have been quick to provide emergency response in most cases of arson and killing related to blasphemy allegations. About Rs100 million have been spent from our tax money on reconstruction of houses and other monetary compensations and restoring facilities such as roads, electricity, gas and water.
On the victim’s side, prolonged litigations, detentions, court expenditures, loss of livelihood, temporary and permanent displacement of thousands of families are accompanying circumstances that are extremely crushing. To calculate the fear and emotional cost that the people have to bear is beyond the scope of a newspaper column.
Democratic countries have expanded the scope of religious and other freedoms for citizens to create a level playing ground for minority religions and sects whereas freedom in our case means impunity for perpetrators of hatred and violence.
The judicial inquiry on the Gojra incident held by Justice Iqbal Hameeduddin had recommended the way forward. For five long years, there has been no progress on the implementation of the recommendations of the inquiry. The government should form a high-powered implementation committee to see that these recommendations are put to effect in the shortest possible time.