By Rafia Zakaria
The case is well known to everyone in Pakistan. On a hot day in June, as both male and female laborers worked in the fields, a small group of women stopped to drink water. An altercation ensued between one woman, who was a Christian, and three other women who were not. The issue at hand was who deserved to drink first and who else could drink water from the same cup. Within half an hour the matter had turned into a fight. Other men and women arrived on the scene and, soon, the prayer leader or imam of the local mosque got involved, too.
There were allegations of blasphemy leveled against the Christian woman, Asia Bibi.
This week, the fight which had begun in a small village of the Punjab province 10 years ago was finally resolved. On January 29, the Supreme Court of Pakistan heard the final appeal wherein lawyers had challenged the revocation of Bibi’s death sentence.
The court passed the judgment in her favor thereby removing any possibility that she would, once again, be thrust back into the depths of the prison cells where she had spent nearly a decade on death row. In that decade, three men — one a stalwart Governor of the Punjab province, another a Federal Government Minister and a third, a cruel assassin – lost their lives. The first two were her champions, while the third was a man who wanted nothing more than to see her dead. Those weren’t the only casualties to take place that were directly or indirectly related to Bibi — the movement that burgeoned around Bibi’s case, led by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan party, wreaked havoc across the country, claiming several more lives.
Despite all this, it is a time for celebration and remembrance. Celebration because Bibi’s acquittal is a positive indicator of the general health of Pakistan’s legal institutions. Even though the country’s institutions are far from perfect with the long delays, poor investigation, and frail guarantees of a process that could either delay or deny justice, in Bibi’s case at least, the system did its work.
Add to that the
tremendous amount of political pressure from hard-line extremists who have repeatedly
threatened to bring the country to a standstill if Bibi was freed and it is
commendable that the law and arbiters of justice prevailed. The law cannot give
Bibi back the time she lost in prison — which is almost a decade — but they can
provide a future where her life and the lives of her family members would no
longer be tainted by the allegations leveled against her several years ago.
It is also a victory for all the Pakistani activists who refused to cave into the extremists’ demands in their fight for justice. Throughout the 10 years, civil society activists, including Bibi’s lawyer Saiful Mulook, faced several threats from extremist elements as they continued to support a woman who, as they had rightly insisted at the time, had been wrongly accused. While the law and order situation in Pakistan has improved of late, it is worth remembering that a mere three or four years ago, extremist elements in the country seemed to have had the upper hand. Any discussion on the topic of blasphemy — particularly for amending laws in such a manner so that they were no longer vague — or defense of any suspects accused of the act would, more often than not, result in the death of the advocate or activist fighting the case.
One hopes that Bibi’s final acquittal can herald a new era for Pakistan’s legal institutions. While she may have been acquitted, several other people accused of blasphemy — who have not even been tried in courts — continue to languish in jails. These include men who are teachers, doctors, and others with mental health issues. With the positive news of Bibi’s acquittal, one hopes that her case could serve as the basis for the courts to review other cases as well. Just like Bibi’s case, most cases suffer from a serious lack of evidence and are motivated by enemies who are often supported by local clerics, venomous relatives, or neighbours.
The Supreme Court’s fortitude in standing strong and issuing a ruling based on the law should also serve as an example to the country’s lower courts. In the past, many of these courts have hesitated when it comes to hearing blasphemy cases because they were afraid of the strong-arm reactions of hard-liners. Not only did such hard-liners ensure that mobs protested outside courts, but their members also issued threats to judges hearing the cases. One great follow-up to this historic decision would be a renewed commitment to providing additional security to the judges and other officials involved in adjudicating these cases so that they no longer fear any repercussions by hard-liners.
Bibi’s acquittal is a huge step forward for Pakistan’s justice system. To ensure that these gains are not lost, the government’s legislative branch should take up the issue once again. Even if the blasphemy law itself is not discussed, supportive legislation can be passed in such a manner that it provides funds for the security of courts and lawyers involved in the cases. Additionally, hearings could be held in such a manner which budgets the time involved in deciding these cases — and seeks reports on the issues faced by the litigants — so that the reasons for the delays are exposed. Every Pakistani needs to feel proud of the fact that Bibi has finally received justice; that their justice system has worked and that a better, more lawful, future is now on the horizon. One hopes that the new era will be one wherein this case stands as a beacon of hope for all the poor, helpless, and innocent people who are waiting for the courts to deliver justice.
(Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” and “Veil.” She writes regularly for The Guardian, the Boston Review, the New Republic, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. Article courtesy Arab News.Twitter: @rafiazakaria)