There are two main issues raised by the case of Zaibunnisa, the 60-year-old woman confined to the police section of a mental asylum near Islamabad for 14 years on charges of defiling the Holy Quran. The first is the misuse of the blasphemy laws, which carry punishments up to and including the death penalty. The police and judiciary are often unwilling to carry out their duties impartially in cases that ignite religious passions out of fear that they too will be targeted. There is justification for this fear. In 1997, a Lahore High Court (LHC) judge, Arif Iqbal Hussain Bhatti, was killed after he acquitted two men accused of blasphemy. While no accused has ever been legally put to death in Pakistan for blasphemy, often the mere accusation is enough to enrage violent mobs and several accused have been lynched and killed by mobs.
Zaibunnisa’s case also highlights the urgent need to amend, if not outright repeal, the laws. As they stand, the police are compelled to immediately arrest anyone nominated in an FIR and carry out the investigation later. But for the law, simple sleuth work by the police would have determined Zaibunnisa’s mental state long before she was arrested. However, when then chief executive Pervez Musharraf attempted to introduce this procedural change in 2000, he was forced to back down in the face of pressure from religious parties. The current government has shown no inclination to amend the laws but this case should serve to jolt them from their apathy. The second issue raised by Zaibunnisa’s plight is the logjam that has blighted our courts and impeded swift delivery of justice. She was held for over a decade even though her name was not on the FIR simply because her family did not challenge the detention. In our inefficient legal system, which has a backlog of over one million cases, Zaibunnisa was simply forgotten.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 26th, 2010.
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