Criminal blasphemy in Pakistan: Asia Bibi

The case of Asia Bibi, finally acquitted of blasphemy in Pakistan, has attracted an enormous amount of media attention. In a guest post, Neil Addison analyses the judgment… 

As is well known, the Pakistani Christian lady Asia Bibi has been cleared of the charge of blasphemy for which she had been sentenced to death. The judgment of the Supreme Court of Pakistan is available in English at the Supreme Court’s website: Asia Bibi v The State CRIMINAL APPEAL NO.39-L OF 2015.

It’s an interesting read, if only because of the fact that the opening paragraphs read more like a manual on Islamic theology than a legal judgment. That was probably necessary in order to establish the Court’s Islamic credentials before the judgment turned to more prosaic legal arguments.

The judgment contains an interesting analysis of the history and misuse of the blasphemy provisions in the Pakistan Penal Code and at para 12 the Court notes

“12. …no one could be allowed to defy the name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him) and be left unpunished, but there is another aspect of the matter; sometimes, to fulfill nefarious designs the law is misused by individuals leveling false allegations of blasphemy. Since 1990, 62 people have been murdered as a result of blasphemy allegations, even before their trial could be conducted in accordance with law. Even prominent figures, who stressed the fact that the blasphemy laws have been misused by some individuals, met with serious repercussions.”

An interesting mixture of Islam and common law appears at para 14:

“14. At this juncture, it is to be noted that Islam as stipulated in Holy Book “Quran” teaches us, amongst many other virtues, to live in peace and harmony, with compassion and love to our other fellow human beings. It is the masterpiece of guidance and knowledge bestowed upon us by the Allah Almighty, which cannot be modified in any way whatsoever, thus being the final book. The commandments of Allah are entrenched in the Quran, which provides for a complete way of life and teaches us the concept of tolerance. It is however to be kept in mind that unless proven guilty, through a fair trial, as provided for in the Constitution and the law, every person is considered innocent, irrespective of their creed, caste and colour.”

There is a sobering mention of the dangers of mob rule when allegations of blasphemy are made:

“15. … it is not for the individuals, or a gathering (mob), to decide as to whether any act falling within the purview of Section 295-C has been committed or not, because as stated earlier, it is the mandate of the Court to make such decision after conducting a fully qualified trial and on the basis of credible evidence brought before it.”

The Court, after noting that the criminal charge was not filed with the Police for five days, does a detailed forensic analysis of the other weaknesses in the prosecution case:

“28. It is pertinent to mention here that admittedly, as is evident from the contents of the FIR [ie The allegation filed with the Police] and also the statements of the witnesses, there were 25-30 ladies present at the spot when the appellant allegedly passed blasphemous remarks against the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him) however, none of the other ladies except Mafia Bibi (PW.2) and Asma Bibi (PW.3) reported the matter to anyone.”

One of the main pieces of prosecution evidence was a “confession” Asia Bibi was alleged to have made in front of a large gathering in her village: a confession which she adamantly denied during her trial. The Court, quite rightly, gave that “evidence” short shrift:

“42. … it is to be noted that this Court has repeatedly held that evidence of extra-judicial confession is a fragile piece of evidence and utmost care and caution has to be exercised in placing reliance on such a confession. It is always looked at with doubt and suspicion due to the ease with which it may be concocted. The legal worth of the extrajudicial confession is almost equal to naught.

[…]

44. In this very instant case, the appellant was brought to a gathering of potentially hundreds of people, she was alone at the time, tensions were running high, and it was an intimidating environment, the appellant may well have felt threatened and vulnerable; thus, the alleged extra-judicial confession made by the appellant, even if presumed to have been made by her before such public gathering, cannot be termed as a voluntary action and nor it can be relied upon to form the basis of a conviction, especially for capital punishment.”

In a concurring but separate judgment, Supreme Court Judge Khosa noted the following interesting point in Ms Bibi’s favour:

“23. (Minority judgment Judge Khosa) The statements made by Muhammad Idrees (CW1) and Muhammad Amin Bukhari, SP (Investigation) (PW6) before the trial court revealed that the alleged blasphemy had been committed by the Christian appellant after her Muslim co-workers had insulted the appellant’s religion and had injured her religious sensibilities only because she believed in and was a follower of Jesus Christ. According to the Holy Qur’an, a Muslim’s faith is not complete till he believes in all the Holy Prophets and Messengers of Almighty Allah including Jesus Christ (Isa son of Maryam) (Peace Be Upon Him) and all the revealed Holy Books of Almighty Allah including the Holy Bible. From that perspective insulting the appellant’s religion by her Muslim co-workers was no less blasphemous.”

Unfortunately, despite the clear judgment by the Pakistan Supreme Court the future and, indeed, the physical safety of Asia Bibi remains in doubt. Mobs are calling for her death and the Pakistani Government is clearly more intent on placating the mob than it is in enforcing the law. The Supreme Court Justices have themselves been threatened since their judgment and they must have been aware that they were placing themselves in danger when they cleared Asia Bibi. They deserve to be commended for doing their legal duty honourably.

Neil Addison

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