By Shahid Dastagir Khan
On 31st October 2018 the Supreme Court of Pakistan overturned the 2010 guilty verdict of the Lahore High court in the Asia Bibi blasphemy case, quashing the death sentence, acquitting her and ordered her release from prison. She still remains imprisoned and her lawyer Saif-ul- Muluk has fled the country to seek refuge in the Netherlands. He says he did so under protest on the advice of the local UN office. “I was put on a plane against my wishes. I would have been much happier if I was in the same place as her but everybody said I was a prime target”, he told reporters in The Hague. Following the verdict extremists and hard-line mobs took to the streets throughout Pakistan, damaging public and private property, setting fire to vehicles and brought the country to a closure for three days until an agreement was reached between the government and them that Asia Bibi will not be allowed to leave the country and a review petition will not be opposed by the government.
Hardliner Khadim Hussain Rizvi launched into a tirade denouncing the verdict as anti-Islamic and called upon his followers to kill the Chief Justice of Supreme court Saqib Nisar and called for rebellion within the army to dislodge the army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa. The police and the government machinery appeared to be helpless bystanders and spectators unable to discharge their most important constitutional duty of protecting the life, liberty and property of Pakistanis – a black day for the rule of law and the constitution of Pakistan. Asia Bibi remains imprisoned though the Netherlands and Italy have offered her and her lawyer temporary asylum.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom Report for 2017 lists 71 countries that have blasphemy laws. The sentences range from a short period of imprisonment to death. In Pakistan death sentence for blasphemy is mandatory, yet it is a country where miscarriage of justice is more probable than in countries that are strong on collection of good evidence before prosecuting, because corruption within the local administration and fabrication of evidence is quite common so much so that even witnesses can be bought to give false evidence or fabricate it. Thus the system of administration of justice is seriously flawed in Pakistan. In terms of sound international jurisprudence, the message that judges/juries in criminal trials must err on the side of innocence has remained constant, hence the adoption of the standard of proof of “beyond reasonable doubt ” in criminal trials going back to the 18th century in the United Kingdom. This effectively means being sure of the guilt of the accused before giving the verdict.
Where a trial involves sensitive religious issues the duty is even greater, to ensure that an innocent person is not convicted because of false, doubtful or fabricated evidence. To find an innocent person guilty and sentence them to death on such unreliable evidence is simply a travesty of justice and unforgivable.
Some very important reasons behind the decision which were based on Qur’an and Hadith because of the allegation of blasphemy are reproduced below from the 56-page judgment of the three- member Bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Saqib Nisar.
“Blasphemy is a serious offence but the insult of the appellant’s religion and religious sensibilities by the complainant party and then mixing truth with falsehood in the name of the holy Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) was also not short of being blasphemous. It is ironical that in the Arabic language the appellant’s name Asia means ‘sinful’ but in the circumstances of the present case she appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’, ‘more sinned against than sinning’.
The Supreme Court concluded that the prosecution had failed to prove its case against the appellant beyond reasonable doubt and allowed the appeal. Following the threats to kill the judges by Khadim Hussain Rizvi and his accomplices, commandos were sent to protect the three Supreme Court judges.
Apart from the inexcusable delay in the delivery of justice to Asia Bibi it must be remembered that this young woman has gone through a most horrific, torturous and fearful period with her life hanging in the balance after being convicted by the High Court for blasphemy and sentenced to death in 2010 being charged in 2009 with blasphemy. It took some 8 years during which this helpless mother of four children remained incarcerated under the threat of being hanged anytime. Now, her life is under threat from these mindless bloodthirsty extremists who have no respect for human life and rule of law.
The violence that followed the Asia Bibi acquittal verdict is most regrettable and very embarrassing for the government particularly when its stated policy is to uphold the rule of law and protect the weak and the vulnerable sections of the society. Rule of law means ensuring safety of citizens and protecting private and public property. Prime Minister Imran Khan has always stood for rule of law and has time and again stated that no one should be above the law irrespective of their status and position. Inciting violence, murder and rebellion within the army are extreme examples of crime and violence. The perpetrators must be arrested, charged and tried for these heinous crimes. We cannot have a double standard- jailing someone for a petty crime, but letting these criminals avoid justice.
Pakistan’s image and record on human rights is not something to be proud of and then this happens, yet again the country is in the news globally for extremism, religious intolerance and violence which is immensely embarrassing indeed for all Pakistanis. The government and its law enforcement agencies must act fast and firmly to apprehend Khadim Hussain Rizvi and his cronies, charge and punish them according to law and place them on the exit control list. If not, the state machinery will rightly be termed dysfunctional. Also lack of proper action would mean Pakistan continuing to be perceived an intolerant society and a safe haven for hardline extremists. Investors and tourists will also stay away from the country and quite rightly so.
The international community needs to be convinced that the state machinery is capable of stopping all this not just temporarily but permanently by ensuring efficient administration of justice. Immediate measures should also include deweaponisation that is also the stated policy of the PTI manifesto. Even a stick is a weapon in law (if carried to commit violence) – it should not be just about guns and knives.
For how long these elements will continue to harass and harm Pakistanis and Pakistan and blackmail in the name of religion? If terrorists can be defeated then a similar resolve would be required to make an example of this unwanted mindset and enemies of humanity. No constitutional duty is bigger or more important than protecting the life, liberty and property of every citizen – also a fundamental human right protected by constitution.
The leader and mastermind Khadim Hussain Rizvi must be arrested, put behind bars, charged and placed on exit-control list together with his cronies. Some foolish and ignorant followers should face lesser charges and only after the leadership are charged with the more serious offences of incitement to violence, murder and sedition. It is no good letting off the principal culprits and punishing the smaller offender.
It is lamentable and indeed very unfortunate that time and again the system looks to find scapegoats and fall guys who are humiliated and punished for reasons of fear and expediency. This must stop otherwise the whole system of justice, fairness and rule of law shall lose its meaning and value to society.
(The writer is a Solicitor of the Senior Courts of England and Wales and an ex-Council Member and Trustee of Anti Slavery International UK. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)