By Rafia Zakaria
“The truth in this
case has been mixed with a lot that is untrue;” so said the Supreme Court of
Pakistan on October 31, 2018, when it heard the appeal of a Pakistani Christian
woman named Asia Bibi. Yesterday, Asia Bibi who had been imprisoned since before
her conviction in 2010, finally left Pakistan for Canada to be reunited with
her family. It is a new day for her and it is also a new day for Pakistan for
upholding the rule of law and persevering against extremist pressure.
As most people in Pakistan know, Asia Bibi was accused of blasphemy after an altercation over who got to drink water from a well. The women, who were all Muslim, did not think that Asia Bibi, a Christian woman should drink from the same cup that they use. As the argument escalated, the women went to the local Imam and alleged that Asia Bibi had said things against the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). He gathered up a mob and went to the police station where a blasphemy complaint was lodged against Asia Bibi. The Imam, who was not even present when the actual altercation happened, had put into motion a sordid ordeal that would lead to the deaths of three men and the long and wrongful imprisonment of an innocent woman.
The first man to die was slain Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who had taken a bold stance against Asia Bibi’s blasphemy conviction. Taseer was gunned down by his own bodyguard — a man named Mumtaz Qadri. Qadri, a member of the hard-line Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan group had been angered by Taseer’s strong advocacy for Asia Bibi. He believed that Asia Bibi deserved to die, despite the fact that there was little actual evidence in the case. A man like Taseer who defended an accused blasphemer was in his view as worthy of death as Asia Bibi herself. In January 2011, he murdered the man that he was hired to guard. A few months after Qadri’s assassination of Taseer (and the arrest of Mumtaz Qadri for the crime) Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities was also killed. It is believed that Bhatti’s assassination may have also been carried out by the supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik group. In the scant space of two months, one woman had been sentenced to death, two men had been killed and one more was in custody all over an altercation that few had witnessed.
It would take a very long time for justice to prevail but eventually, after many long years with little hope, it did. In 2018, a whole seven years after the assassination of Governor Salman Taseer, his killer Mumtaz Qadri was finally executed. The supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik came out into the streets and threatened the Government with sit-ins and shutdowns. They declared the murderer a martyr and wept over his death. The rest of Pakistan, however, felt as if justice had finally been served and that the state had refused to be cowed by bullies who wanted to inflict senseless violence on anyone who opposed them in any way at all.
That, however, was just half the story. A few months after Qadri’s sentence was carried out, the Supreme Court of Pakistan heard the appeal in Asia Bibi’s case. The courageous judges refused again to be bullied by the zealots who threatened more violence if the verdict was overturned. Instead, they took a close and careful look at the evidence and found it to be desperately wanting. There was, in fact, no evidence at all that the alleged blasphemous statements had ever been made. In the meantime, Asia Bibi had languished in jail and her family was subjected to all sorts of harassment and discrimination. Until they left the country, they had to live in hiding and not be open about the fact that their mother was Asia Bibi and that she was in prison.
The overturning of the verdict should have been a joyous moment for both Asia Bibi and her family but once again supporters of Mumtaz Qadri and Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan made murderous threats against her and her family. So dire was the situation that they the details of Asia Bibi’s release had to be kept a secret. For a whole week, she could not actually be released from prison. When she was finally released from Multan jail on November 7, 2018, she was immediately flown to Islamabad under tight security. In the time between now and then Asia Bibi had to live in secret at various safe houses in undisclosed locations. It was the only way that she could be safe in Pakistan.
This week, Asia Bibi finally left for Canada and was finally reunited with her family. The Foreign Office issued a statement confirming that she had finally been able to leave. The reign of terror and secrecy that had hung over the family when the terrible story began is now finally over. Asia Bibi can look forward to a safer future in a new land. The legal institutions of Pakistan and the officials who kept her location and date of departure a secret also deserve praise for remaining stalwart before tremendous pressure and threats from hard-line groups. In this sense, this final resolution in Asia Bibi’s case is not simply a victory for her, but also a victory for all those who stand for the rule of law and for the right of a defendant to have a proper trial and for charges to be dismissed if there isn’t adequate evidence. There was a time not too long ago when Pakistan seemed a lost country unable to hold its own against extremists. With the final resolution of this case that stood for so much injustice and cruelty toward the poor and non-Muslim, Pakistan has shown that it is moving ahead and that no one is above the law.
(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.