by Asif Aqeel and Shaheryar Gill.
Aqeel is the Executive Director of European Center for Law and Justice’s (ECLJ) office in Lahore, Pakistan. Gill is Associate Counsel with the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) based in Virginia.
The Government of Pakistan is considering releasing Aasia, a Christian woman who was recently sentenced to death by a Pakistani trial court for violating Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
Asia Bibi (C), a Christian mother listens
to Pakistani Punjab province
governor Salman Taseer (R).
Courtesy of: AFP News.
On November 8, 2010, a Sessions Court in Nankana Sahib, Pakistan, sentenced forty-five-year old Aasia to death and fine of approximately $1100 under section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which provides mandatory death penalty for any defamation of Prophet Muhammad. Other sections of the code punish defamation of Islamic prophets and desecration of the Qur’an.
Once again, the outrageous blasphemy conviction has sparked public debate in Pakistan on the blasphemy laws, which have been used for the last three decades to persecute religious minorities and suppress any speech that is perceived to defame Islam.
Due to the international pressure, Pakistani Government has come up with the option of providing presidential pardon to Aasia.[i] Article 45 of Pakistan’s Constitution empowers the President to pardon any person awarded sentence by any court. As usual, President Zardari asked the Minorities Affairs Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, to give him a report on the case. The Punjab Governor, Salmaan Taseer, also visited Aasia in Sheikhupura District Jail. Governor Taseer told media that Aasia gave him her mercy petition for the President.[ii] Talking to a local news channel, Dunya TV, Governor Taseer said that Aasia’s conviction had defamed the country and that she would be released soon.
Granting presidential pardon to Aasia, when other legal remedies have not been exhausted, could have serious repercussions for the Christians living in Pakistan. Qari Hanif Jallundhari, one of the Deobandi clerics in Pakistan, said “I advise him (Zardari) not to take a hasty decision under foreign pressure. . . . Such a decision will lead to untoward repercussions.”[iii] Jallundhari is not alone in castigating the government. Several other prominent Islamic clerics have also warned of severe backlash. Sahibzada Fazal Karim said that Pakistan did not need rulers who give refuge to “blasphemers.” Lawyers in the Nankana Sahib district boycotted courts on November 23 and some religious clerics have alluded to possible communal violence.[iv] The Daily Nawa-e-Waqat has claimed that according to its “sources,” Aasia has already been moved to an undisclosed location from where she would be sent to the United States.[v]
The PPP has been sympathetic to religious minorities and President Zardari has been keen on taking steps in protecting them. Just last year after the Gojra incidents in which seven Christians were burnt to death and more than one hundred Christian homes were vandalized and set on fire after a false allegation that one Christian desecrated the Qur’an, Pakistan’s government officials made commitments to amend the blasphemy laws. During a meeting at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Pakistani Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs said that he had tabled a bill in the national assembly that will amend the blasphemy laws. He also said that the government was taking appropriate measures to amend the blasphemy laws. Even the Prime Minister pledged to review these laws.[vi] However, one year after the government’s promises to review and amend the blasphemy laws, two Christian brothers arrested for alleged blasphemy were shot outside a court in Faisalabad, Pakistan, and Ms. Aasia has been sentenced to death under the same blasphemy laws. The government is yet again making commitments to amend the law.[vii]
Hundreds of people accused of defamation of Islam are languishing in prisons. How many of them will be granted pardons? Instead of granting presidential pardons, Pakistani Government should make an effort to providing appropriate legal remedy by amending the blasphemy laws that have serious substantive and procedural problems. These laws have allowed extremists to persecute religious minorities, kill people with impunity, and file false charges to settle personal scores. Pakistan must also take strong measures against vigilante justice and punish those who take the law in their own hands. Moreover, Pakistan must strengthen its courts, law enforcement, and judicial process, which is abused by some for political reasons and by others to simply oppress the weaker. Most of the trial courts convict people accused of blasphemy due to pressure and threats by religious extremists. However, the appellate level courts, the High Court and the Supreme Court, have overturned most of the blasphemy convictions. Not only Presidential pardon in one case is only a short term remedy adopted in response to international pressure, it will also malign the court system, put thousands of minority citizens at risk, and still allow the same defective laws to continue threaten lives of people like Aasia.
The long-term solution to this problem is amending the blasphemy laws - giving true protection to minority citizens at risk - including Christians - and punishing those responsible for the violence aimed at the minority.
[i] Pope Urges Freedom for Jailed Christian Woman, The Daily Times (Nov. 20, 2010), http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2010/11/20/story_20-11-2010_pg7_10.
[ii] Blasphemy convict gives Mercy Please to Taseer, Dawn.com (Nov. 21, 2010), http://www.dawn.com/2010/11/21/blasphemy-convict-gives-mercy-plea-to-taseer-2.html
[iii] Blasphemy Case: Zardari Warned Not to Grant Pardon, The Express Tribune (Nov. 23, 2010), http://tribune.com.pk/story/80604/blasphemy-case-zardari-warned-not-to-grant-pardon/
[iv] The Daily Nawa-e-Waqat, Nov. 23, 2010, Lahore edition.
[vii] Kamran Haider, Pakistan Will Not Repeal Blasphemy Law - Minister, Reuters (Nov. 23, 2010), http://in.reuters.com/article/idINIndia-53101520101123.