Aasia Bibi’s conviction for blasphemy is inconsistent with the evidence presented in the case and the appeal court will likely reduce her sentence, if not acquit her altogether, according to legal experts.
Bibi the Christian woman whose innocence was championed by Salmaan Taseer until his assassination in January 2011 has been in jail since June 2009. Her allegedly blasphemous utterances came after a quarrel with some Muslim neighbours who had refused to drink water from the same glass as her as she was a Christian.
A Nankana Sahib additional district and sessions judge sentenced her to death on November 8, 2010, finding her guilty of uttering derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). She was also fined Rs100,000.
But the record of her trial shows that there were several holes in the prosecution’s case, including an extrajudicial confession, inconsistencies in the testimony of prosecution witnesses, and procedural errors on the part of the police, The Express Tribune has learnt.
Confession and testimony
Bibi’s counsel SK Chaudhry said that the trial judge had based his guilty verdict on her alleged confession at a local assembly at the village near Nankana Sahib where she lived.
But even according to testimony from prosecution witnesses, this confession was made in a hostile atmosphere where Aasia Bibi feared for her life. And the witnesses wildly contradicted each other on where the panchayat met and how many people were there.
According to the record, prosecution witness Muhammad Idrees submitted that Aasia Bibi was frightened of the crowd. He said that on the day of the assembly, she had approached him in the fields and asked him to protect her. “I refused, saying that I am a Muslim and I cannot support you,” he said in court. He said that the panchayat was held at the dera of Ali Ahmed.
Muhammad Salam, the complainant in the case, said that the public meeting took place in the house of one Muhammad Mukhtar and Aasia Bibi was brought there by villagers on two motorcycles. He said that there were 100 people present.
But Mafia Bibi, another prosecution witness and one of the women neighbours that Aasia Bibi had fought with, said the meeting took place at her father Abdul Sattar’s house and was attended by a thousand people.
Asma Bibi, Mafia’s sister and a class 6 student, had yet another version. She said the meeting took place at the house of one Rana Razzaq and was attended by 2,000 people. She said Aasia was brought to the venue on foot.
She denied that she and her sister had been involved in an altercation over drinking water, contradicting testimony to this effect from SP Muhammad Amin Bokhari. He said that Aasia had told him that she confessed at the panchayat because she feared for her life.
Muhammad Afzal, another prosecution witness, testified that Mushtaq Ahmed, a prayer leader, had brought Aasia Bibi to the public gathering.
Chaudhry, Aasia Bibi’s counsel, argued that considering the inconsistencies in the witness statements, it had not been established that such a public gathering even took place where his client supposedly confessed. And even if it did, he argued, there was enough in the statements to show that Aasia Bibi was forced to go before a hostile crowd whom she feared would hurt or kill her. Thus, her so-called confession was coerced and of no legal value, he said.
Retired judge Zahid Bukhari said that extra judicial confessions have no value and cannot be grounds to convict a person.
According to guidelines issued by the Supreme Court, a blasphemy case cannot be registered until the district coordination officer or the district police officer authorises it.
However, SP Bokhari and Investigation Officer Muhammad Arshad both testified that they were not aware of this. Salam, the complainant, told the court that permission was not obtained from the DCO or DPO prior to the registration of the case.
He also admitted that he had not heard the remarks made by Aasia, but had been told about them by someone else. He had not written the application for the FIR either; it was written by a lawyer, whose name he did not know. He said he merely signed it.
Speaking in the trial court, Aasia Bibi’s counsel submitted that it was mandatory to seek permission from the provincial or federal government prior to the registration of a blasphemy case, but this permission was not sought. He noted that the complainant did not witness the incident but had filed a complaint on hearsay.
Bukhari, the former judge, said that the investigation of the case appeared not to have been carried out under guidelines issued by the Supreme Court and this strengthened Aasia Bibi’s appeal.
Aasia Bibi was the only person to testify in her defence. She said that after she had fought with Mafia Bibi and Asma Bibi, two of the prosecution witnesses, they had conspired with Qari Muhammad Salam and got a false case registered against her. She denied making any derogatory comments about the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him).
Chaudhry, her counsel, said that no one else had been willing to testify as a defence witness out of fear. He said that the trial court’s verdict showed that it had been influenced by external factors.
Other legal experts suggested that the trial court’s handing out of the maximum sentence showed bias, especially when there were so many holes in the case and the defendant was a woman – towards whom the courts were usually more sympathetic.
Bukhari said that in such cases where the trial court had handed out the maximum punishment, it was usually “for being influenced by religious factors”. The appellate courts, he said, were more independent and would deal with the case on merit. He added that he was confident that Aasia Bibi’s death sentence would be reduced to a life imprisonment, or that she would be acquitted.
Advocate Aftab Ahmed Bajwa said that in cases where the trial court appeared to have handed out an extreme punishment under outside pressure, the appellate courts usually lessened the sentenced or overturned the verdict. He said this would likely happen in Aasia Bibi’s case too.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 12th, 2013.