By Saima Baig
A strange thing has happened in the land of the pure, the bastion of Islam that is Pakistan. A woman imprisoned for almost nine years and who was on death row for blasphemy has been acquitted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
The reason I call this strange is that in Pakistan — it is. The country’s infamous blasphemy laws are used willy-nilly to settle personal scores and it is very difficult to be absolved of this ridiculous crime. Plenty of people are languishing in jail because they had supposedly “blasphemed” against Islam, its Prophet or the Qur’an. In fact, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was murdered for trying to get Asia Bibi’s acquittal. And it is Asia who has been acquitted today.
This is no doubt a landmark ruling, not least because there was absolutely no evidence against Asia Bibi, but also because it shows that even though the case against her was entirely fabricated she still had to languish in jail for almost a decade before getting justice. Judges would continue to recuse themselves from her case and lawyers were unwilling to represent her.
This is how hard it is to get out of the blasphemy trap in Pakistan. Her acquittal at least gives a little hope that others might get justice too. Much has to be said about her current lawyer Saiful Malook, who argued her case successfully in the supreme court and who is no doubt under threat for his life as well. Her previous lawyer, Naeem Shakir, died last year.
Of course, the religious fanatics cannot just let this go without an outcry. For them it is not important that there was no evidence against her. In Pakistan, the accusation of blasphemy is always the judgement — and sometimes the execution.
Now, TLP (Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan), a party of right-wing religious nut jobs, has come out on the streets to protest against the verdict. They have threatened the judges, the army chief, the government and, of course, Asia and her lawyers. She and her family are still in danger and it is not clear when she will be released and where she will go.
TLP, like many other religious parties, has been propped up by Pakistan’s military establishment to keep tight control over democratically-elected governments. They have usually been brought out whenever the ruling party has to be reined in. Recently, the TLP was used to go after Nawaz Sharif’s government.
After Asia’s acquittal, the current Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed the nation. He supported the verdict and told the TLP and its members on the streets to cease and desist. He warned them that the state will take action if they turn violent.
Yes, this is the same Imran Khan who used the blasphemy card when it was convenient for him to do so, against Nawaz Sharif. In this case he, maintained that Pakistan is an Islamic country, all laws are as per Islam and this decision was too.
The fact that he has changed his tune makes me wonder: has the military establishment had enough of the TLP? Because the only way Imran Khan could have made a speech against a religious party is if he had the backing of the military. Previous prime ministers did not have this backing and therefore always had to tiptoe around fundamentalists.
What is clear from Khan’s bravado is that the military establishment is still very much in control. He is standing his ground because they are behind him. Have they realised that when you unleash monsters, sometimes the monsters come after you?
Are we about to see a change in Pakistan’s support to religious extremists? Perhaps. Or perhaps this is just another strategic move. For now, the army will support the Prime Minister and the TLP will be quietened down. Until the next time.
There is much to celebrate. An innocent woman has been acquitted. But here is the rub. That very word “innocent,” because she would have been punished if she had been guilty. Asia has been released because there was no evidence against her.
This is the first baby step against the misuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. This acquittal has indicated that there needs to be evidence to show that a person has blasphemed. There are many many more steps to follow. This does not mean that there is a wave of support to repeal these arcane laws.
While we should rejoice that she has been released, we must think of all those still incarcerated. And we must not forget the fact that blasphemy as a concept and blasphemy laws as part of the justice system need to be completely abolished. Human rights demand it.
Saima is a is an environmental management, environmental economics and climate change consultant based in the UK. When she is not working on adaptation and mitigation strategies, she writes about religion, feminism, politics and secularism. She is a staunch advocate of science education, in particular astrophysics. Follow her on Twitter.