It was an unforgettable moment when I was woken at 5am by a phone call to say that Asia Bibi had been acquitted by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. For more than eight years, the Catholic woman from Pakistan’s Punjab Province had languished in jail after being found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to death.
But now, her voice full of excitement, Eisham Ashiq, Bibi’s daughter, was rejoicing over news that the highest court in the land had ordered her “immediate release”. Unable to speak much English, the 18-year-old quickly passed the phone to family friend Joseph Nadeem, who described how they had all “danced for joy” when the news came through early on October 31.
So imagine the disappointment when a few days later I phoned the family and learned that the Pakistan government had reached an agreement with a hard-line Islamist political party determined to stop Bibi’s release.
Under the terms of a five-point plan agreed by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) and both the federal and Punjab governments last Friday, the authorities promised not to oppose a petition to be submitted to the Supreme Court to review the case.
In addition, the government agreed to initiate legal proceedings to add Asia’s name to Pakistan’s Exit Control List, thereby preventing her from leaving the country.
The TLP said that only after these and other demands had been met by the government would it agree to halt the protests and disperse the crowds. This came amid reports that 5,000 Islamists had rallied in Islamabad, with a further 4,000 demonstrators staging a sit-in in Lahore, and with more protesters gathering in Peshawar in the north-west and the southern port-city of Karachi, as well as many towns and cities in between.
With radicals able to block major roads and force the closure of schools and colleges, the TLP have clearly sensed that they hold the balance of power.
After reaching an agreement with the government, TLP leader Pir Afzal Qadri addressed a press conference, saying there would be consequences if it came to light that Bibi had already left the country. He said that if she was found to be abroad “a war would immediately begin in the country and there [would be] a call for revolution”.
By then, Bibi’s lawyer, Saif-ul-Malook, had already fled the country.
Bibi’s family, whom I had got to know during their visit to Britain last month as guests of the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), told me that Islamist leaders had descended on their neighbourhood and were going from house to house determined to hunt them down.
And so it came as no surprise when last Saturday Ashiq Masih, Bibi’s husband, made a dramatic video appeal, pleading for the family to be granted asylum in Britain, the United States or Canada.
Meanwhile, Bibi continues to languish in prison, and Pakistan wrestles with fundamental questions about its identity and the blasphemy laws, which she is accused of breaching, that lie at the heart of the matter. Indeed, the Bibi ruling has become a test case for defining the place of Islam within the nation-state of Pakistan and its national life.
When Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the man popularly revered as the “founding father of Pakistan”, became the country’s first premier at the birth of the nation in 1947, he famously declared that “you may belong to any religion – that is no business of the state”. But in the years since, the country has struggled with a tide of Islamist influence from hardliners who wish to turn the country into what, in their view, should be a fully fledged theocracy.
Central to this are changes to the country’s blasphemy laws, introduced between 1980 and 1996, which imposed maximum penalties for crimes of disrespect to Islam.
Of these, the most draconian is Penal Code 295-C, which prescribes the death penalty for insulting the Muslim Prophet Mohammad – the crime Bibi is accused of committing in June 2009 when an altercation over drinking water broke out with fellow berry-pickers.
According to research published by the National Commission for Justice and Peace, an agency of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference which supports those caught up in blasphemy allegations, there have been as many as 1,534 victims of blasphemy cases between 1987 and 2017. Of these, 774 involved Muslims, while 501 concerned Ahmadis, whom the blasphemy laws ban from “posing as Muslims”, for fear of offending Sunnis and others.
Christians, by contrast, were involved in 219 cases – less than 20 per cent of the total. But the number is disproportionately high, given that Christians comprise just two per cent of the overall population – fewer than four million in a country of more than 192 million.
Sources in Pakistan have frequently told ACN that a culture of disrespect for Christians – who are often only allowed jobs such as cleaners, factory and sewage workers – means that they frequently do not receive justice in blasphemy cases.
Church leaders say that accusations of blasphemy are frequently made against Christians as a result of vendettas or as a means of encouraging them to leave a given town or village.
ACN contacts say that “misuse of the law” means cases erroneously go to court, with justices accused of giving them disproportionately harsh sentences because of anti-Christian bias.
Concerns that the Asia Bibi case had not followed due process appeared to be confirmed on October 30 when the Supreme Court justices released their judgment acquitting her. They referred to a five-day lapse between the date of Bibi’s supposed offence and the “first instance report”, when the allegation was officially lodged.
They also pointed to supposed discrepancies in the statements of prosecution witnesses who, they claimed, gave differing accounts of a public gathering, shortly after Bibi’s alleged crime, in which she is reported to have confessed her crime – something she has repeatedly denied.
On the Bibi ruling hangs the question of the rule of law in Pakistan, because case after case shows the failure of the state to ensure allegations of blasphemy follow due process in a court of law. Instead, justice is often left in the mob’s hands.
In 2006, I visited Pakistan and met Yousif Masih, a Christian man accused of desecrating the Koran in Sangla Hill, a town in the Punjab province. Within minutes of the accusation, violence spread and a reported 3,000 militant Islamists attacked the town’s Christian community, damaging Sangla Hill’s Catholic,
Salvation Army and Presbyterian churches.
Later, Fr Samson Dilwar, parish priest of Sangla, said that the police had not committed to trial those arrested for the assaults and the government had failed to inform the Christian community that a judicial inquiry was underway, led by a local judge.
When Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, and her daughter Eisham Ashiq visited Britain last month they shared their story of heartache and pain over the nine years since Bibi was accused of blasphemy and taken into custody. In appealing for Asia’s release from jail, they did not just speak on behalf of the family but of the whole Christian community in calling for the rule of law to be upheld and the rights of minorities to be respected.
In the week that saw victory snatched from the grasp of those so close to securing Bibi’s freedom, we can do no better than reflect on the words that she asked her daughter to pass on to the British people when she visited last month. The message she gave Eisham was: “Never give up hope, praying that the Lord will grant justice and that our family will be reunited once again.”
John Pontifex is head of press and information for Aid to the Church in Need (UK). Visit acnuk.org
This article first appeared in the November 9 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here