Sentenced to hang

Published: November 13, 2010
Asia Bibi is seen in an undated photo handed out by family members. PHOTO: REUTERS

Asia Bibi is seen in an undated photo handed out by family members. PHOTO: REUTERS

Asiya Bibi had, in 2009, been asked to fetch water while working in the fields near Nankana Sahib, a town some 75 kilometres from Lahore. For this, it seems, she could end up at the gallows. A district court has sentenced the Christian mother of five to death for blasphemy, under the controversial section 295-C of Pakistan’s Penal Code. She becomes the first woman to be convicted on the charge.

The whole matter exposes the absurdity of the provisions. From what we know of the story, some Muslim women labourers had objected to Asiya touching the water bowl on the grounds of her belief. It is, of course, a fact that their objection has no roots in Islam, a religion which makes no distinction on the basis of caste or creed. Unfortunately, clerics in the area to whom the women went a few days later, accusing Asiya of committing blasphemy, did not bother to point this out. The women have latched on to the allegations that the unfortunate woman had used derogatory language against the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) and acted to bring her before a court. We should ask what our religious leaders are doing to correct the many misperceptions that seem to have crept into the minds of people about Islam and its principles. We would expect for instance that, as men committed to a faith based on tolerance, peace and equality for all humans, they would now step forward to state that there should be no space for bigotry of the kind seen at Nankana Sahib or for the raising of objections over fetching water which seem to have led to more serious charges.

It is unclear why Asiya should have chosen to commit blasphemy. The whole matter, like many of the cases of the same kind, seems to hinge entirely around blind bias and a desire to ‘punish’ minority communities. This is one reason why rights activists have sought changes in the blasphemy law for years, to ensure they cannot be used as a means to seek vengeance. A further complication is frequently created by the fact that extremist groups and clerics rally to create an environment which makes it difficult to look at matters fairly whenever a charge of blasphemy is brought. It is this environment which has played a part in encouraging actions that have led to persons accused of blasphemy being killed even before a final verdict can be delivered. Some have been murdered in jails; others outside courts. It is also true that a number of those who currently languish in jails after being held on charges of blasphemy suffer mental sickness and need treatment rather than imprisonment.

We need to find a way out of a situation that is growing worse by the year. The blasphemy provisions are used more often as a means to settle petty disputes. Asiya’s sentence will be appealed in the Lahore High Court. Her husband maintains there is nothing to the charges. But the case exposes just how much hatred now runs through our society. It will add also to the insecurity felt by all minority groups which have already been pushed to the very sidelines of society with laws, such as those on blasphemy, acting to facilitate those who choose to act against them.

The government needs to ensure that the procedural change that was initiated in the law’s operation is implemented. According to this, once a complaint has been received that an individual or individuals have committed blasphemy, a senior police official is tasked with first investigating to check whether the complaint has credibility. This is crucial because, more often than not, we have seen blasphemy charges levelled against people who are then convicted of them in the most dubious of circumstances, often by lower court judges who are afraid to give but a guilty verdict. In most such instances, the local Muslim population is often incited to act as a mob and during hearings the mere presence of so many charged people in and around the courtroom is enough to intimidate anyone. Perhaps the superior courts need to take notice of this case and order a retrial.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 14th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (34)

  • Iqbal
    Nov 14, 2010 - 12:22AM

    Pakistan’s hypocrisy at its best. It is very good at highlighting prejudices in other countries such as Kashmir, India and America but when when it comes to its own tolerances the rules change. The problem appears to be education. We are corrupted with religious crap but when it comes to competing in education we are far behind. No wonder the West prefer to recruit specialists from India and not Pakistan. All we know is that everything must be followed by religious doctrine which was written over 1500 years ago.
    When former President Musharraf said “Today we are the poorest, the most illiterate, the most backward, the most unhealthy, the most un-enlightened, the most deprived, and the weakest of all the human race” I understand why he said that. I am ashamed to be a muslim (also the most untrusted religion in the West). To make my point clear please refer to this article (I would not be surprised if this comment has been edited or removed by the moderator):

  • Shireen Khan
    Nov 14, 2010 - 1:10AM

    What a shame, whatever has happened to the Pakistan envisaged by our Quaid and the spirit of Islam- why are such travesties of justice permitted, the Supreme Court should take note of such horrific acts instead of continuously dabbling in the politics of this country.Recommend

  • Klues
    Nov 14, 2010 - 4:50AM

    How unfortunate. I hope courts do their due diligence.Recommend

  • no joy
    Nov 14, 2010 - 7:55AM

    ….and Pakistanis have the temerity to talk about human rights and state oppression in their neighborhood. Recommend

  • SharifL
    Nov 14, 2010 - 1:03PM

    It is a shame really. There is a lot of meanness in villages. Asked to sum up her village’s qualities, one woman responds promptly: “Malice, envy, apathy, brutality.”
    There you have it. Does it justify killing of a good person? The answer is no. I think this blasphemy law must be repealed; it does not fit with 21st century world. Recommend

  • Talat Haque
    Nov 14, 2010 - 1:12PM

    What a collection of sickening hypocrites this nation is………… People would curse the Prophet to his face and he never gave a single person even a hurting word in reply………… There is no one remotely near to the kindness of the prophet they claim to love…………. they dare BullSh about killing people out of love for someone ………… no wonder a whole generation is being blasted and bombed out of existence ……….. we deserve what we are getting ………. this is what i believe. Recommend

  • Ali
    Nov 14, 2010 - 3:54PM

    Blasphemy law of Pakistan is a blasphemous law and following it would means blatantly contradicting Quran and Sunnah. Such anti Islamic laws have no place in an Islamic republic.Recommend

  • Remy
    Nov 14, 2010 - 5:23PM

    Dear Friends.
    I am obviously extremely sad to read about Asia Bibi, however I would like to thank all those who have commented this article with sensible and reasonable words. You are the honour of Pakistan. I am French, I am Christian Catholic, yet I know that the issue that is being underlined here is not Islam. Islam is a religion of love and mercy. The real problem I can see here is the failure of the “national” community to organise itself on the basis of religion. Such an idea is possible, it is feasible, provided citizens can benefit from an education of quality. I think the health and stability of Pakistan might be challenged by state-survival issues, which monopolise the resources that would be necessary to the development of the people through education. The failure to gather those resources for that purpose create only more frustration.

    In regards to Asia Bibi, there is nothing I can do but call you to raise your voices in the media. Talk about it, enlighten this debate with your reason. No foreign country should intervene in this debate as this would only radicalise those who already feel threatened. Be proud Muslims, don’t let others dictate to you what an Islamic Republic should be like when you can prove them wrong through Ijtihad. The radicalisation of Islam has benefited many different interests in the past, now it is time for you all to show to the world the light that lies in your heart.

    Be blessed. Eid Mubarak.Recommend

  • Nov 14, 2010 - 6:13PM

    I am sorry for her, because she seems to be innnocent, but if not, than sorry for the article above, This is simply nothing but a hypothetical verdict over a honourble court’s verdict.One should know appeal court has only full authoriyty to nullify any decision,if claimed accounts have any grounds,then must have faith on apex.
    “Law of land Must be prevailed.”
    We have seen many accounts of such verdicts, for instance a lady was sentenced for 86 years in most redicilous fashion on a dubious account of same nature recently In U.S.

    Pakistan’s Penal Code might have some trouble and should be solved on right legal and statuary forums only, but untill we sould respect Laws. This is the only way to recover to properity and avoid ANARCHY!!!Recommend

  • M M Malik
    Nov 14, 2010 - 6:48PM

    There are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan and the Indian Muslims live among a sea of non-Muslims, yet they practices religion without any mulla style blasphemy laws. These infamous laws are the imagination of fickle minded mullas without any basis in the Quran or the Traditions.Recommend

  • Talha
    Nov 14, 2010 - 7:09PM

    Of course good exists here but our situation would not be this bad if the bad outweighs the righteous by a large margin.

    I feel sorry for Jinnah though, he worked so hard for these people and look how they ruined his good name and his hard work.

    Shame on you.Recommend

  • Henna Khan
    Nov 14, 2010 - 8:31PM

    I totally agree. Why do we always forget the incident of a woman of throwing garbage at Holy Prophet(SAW). What did he do about it? Yes, he ignored her.
    Those people who complained against the woman or the judiciary who penalized her, how much Islam do they themselves follow? Recommend

  • Bold
    Nov 14, 2010 - 10:11PM

    Can someone tell me who the Judge is please?Recommend

  • Hassan Aftab
    Nov 14, 2010 - 10:38PM

    This is exactly why the world does not support pakistan on kashmir where over one million non muslims live.Recommend

  • Anoop
    Nov 14, 2010 - 11:54PM

    Blasphemy laws are a good example of the path India and Pakistan have chosen for themselves.

    Indian laws,based on the concept of “Dharma” on which its Constitution is based, are universal in nature and dont tend to discriminate against any section of society. Show me one law or line in the Indian constitution which is discriminative in nature.

    Pakistan would do well to ctrl+c and ctrl+v the Indian constitution.Recommend

  • M M Malik
    Nov 15, 2010 - 12:04AM

    @Henna Khan
    The Holy Prophet (saw) did not ignore the garbage throwing women, one day when she did not do her distasteful act, the Holy Prophet inquired about her and was told that she is indisposed. The Holy Prophet went to her house to comfort her.
    If punishments for blasphemy were legal, the Holy Prophet would have never taken a step in the opposite direction. Recommend

  • Nov 15, 2010 - 1:46PM

    I can only say – thank god for the story of the prophet and lady throwing garbage.

    Surely you do not need a precedent to tell you what is right and what is wrong. Surely the christian woman has the right to bad mouth anyone she pleases without having to face jail or the gallows.

    When I argued that MF hussein has the artistic licence to paint whatever he wishes – my friends said “Why did he choose to depict hindu gods and goddesses – he would not have dared depict the prophet and his wives.”

    That does not justify the intolerance we showed MF hussein. And though the blashphemy law does not exist in India, the pressure was good enough for him to leave the country.

    South Asians can be a prickly sort of people – we dont need laws to help us in that direction. Recommend

  • Henna Khan
    Nov 15, 2010 - 3:20PM

    @M M Malik
    If you had read my comment in the context of Ali‘s comment, you would have understood what I meant. Yes, Holy Prophet ignored her as long as she was throwing the garbage, he didn’t threaten her neither killed her.
    Those people who complained against the woman or the judiciary who penalized her, how much Islam do they themselves follow?
    I meant those women who accused her of blasphemy and the judge who penalized her. These women wouldn’t have been so innocent either, they must have said some nasty stuff about her or her religion, which compelled her to retaliate in this manner. Every religious person who belong to any religion consider every other religion as false, that is a human nature but that’s not an excuse to abuse other’s religion. If we want respect for our religion, we should show it first to other religions.

    Surely the christian woman has the right to bad mouth anyone she pleases without having to face jail or the gallows.
    There’s a difference between anyone and Holy Prophet, just like there’s a difference between anyone and Prophet Jesus, anyone and any Hindu god. Because they’re the symbol of the specific religion itself, bad-mouthing them angers and hurts the feeling all the followers of that specific religion. Sensitivity and sensibility both after all are human qualities. If one is sensitive towards one’s own religion or faith, should also be sensitive towards other’s religion and that goes both ways.Recommend

  • Irfan
    Nov 15, 2010 - 5:44PM

    Does any pakistani politician have the guts to repeal this draconian anti-blasphemous law ?
    Well if yes, then there are some sane people out there in Pakistan, if no, then now wonder the world treats Pakistan the way it is getting treated.Recommend

  • SharifL
    Nov 15, 2010 - 7:55PM

    Irfan: I think Sherry Rehman wants to to put a motion in parliament to amend the blasphemy law. I hope she is successful. PPP, ANP and MQM should support this motion. It mifght enrage Islamic parties. Recommend

  • Azeem
    Nov 16, 2010 - 10:49AM

    Another sentence that will either never be carried out or overturned after 10-15 byears. till then this womens life will be horrible. Wheres Asma Jehangir now when somweone really needs her…..Recommend

  • Nov 16, 2010 - 12:17PM

    @Henna Khan. I will reiterate that the woman in question has the right to bad mouth anyone – including the people or myths we deify.

    Nothing is too sacred to bad mouth – and if you hold it sacred then mere bad mouthing should not shake your belief.

    Why is it when a person claims a religious label, we all have to shut up and not question it. Of course bad mouthing goes beyond questioning – but you can always get up and leave.

    That poor woman should not have to answer to anyone or spend even a minute in jail for what she said. I dont believe your lofty views on your god or my lofty views on my god are more precious than her liberty. Recommend

  • SharifL
    Nov 16, 2010 - 4:52PM

    prasad: I agree with you 100%Recommend

  • Iqbal
    Nov 17, 2010 - 1:10AM

    @Henna Khan. Please refer to my earlier comment (it is the first one). The problem we have is that this lady did not bad mouth anyone. The allegations are based on some women who under Pakistan’s law are probably more superior then anyone. Even if she did, is the punishment being hanged? There are no such laws in the civilised world.
    Ex President Musharraf did suggest that we muslims lack intelligence and I am afraid I believe him. I was born in Pakistan and now live in UK. Having done my education in UK and comparing to what I was taught at madrassas in Pakistan is like comparing day and night. We were brainwashed by the clerics and our illiterate parents that islam was superior and others faiths such as hinduism and christanity was like following the devil. You know very well this happens in Pakistan and in other Islamic countries. What they fail to preach was some questionable acts which are written in quran such as the marriage of Aisha at the age of 6. Would you allow that today?
    I therefore ask (and being asked in the West) does Islam needs to change with the modern world? We are viewed as bunch of religious fanatics without any ideology. In UK it is well known that the muslims are the worst performers in education and proportionately have the highest rate of claiming social security benefits. Does it not surprise you that visa being approved to Pakistanis and Bangladeshis is the lowest among people claiming from the sub continent. You make your own conclusion. I am assuming that you have some reasonable educational background.Recommend

  • Kulsum
    Nov 19, 2010 - 8:36PM

    Iqbal and Parsad, I agree with you completely. Even if this woman said vile things about Islam or the Prophet, she should have the freedom of speech to do so without facing jail or death. That is the true hallmark of a free, healthy democratic society. Is it any surprise that the world is not taking our country or Islam seriously anymore? We sully our own name and reputation by our misdeeds, then we cry about everyone being discriminatory towards us. If we are to grow as a strong nation looking ahead, we have to shed such regressive mentality!
    Besides, there are so many serious crimes of murders, kidnapping, rapes, etc taking place. Why is police and court wasting time on what some woman has to say in anger???Recommend

  • Observer
    Nov 19, 2010 - 10:39PM

    Pakistan was formed to emancipate Muslims from the so-called discrimination from Hindus and British colonists. It is ironic, that the same Muslims are responsible for horrendous persecution of Christian minorities. This is only the tip of the iceberg. The real stories of harrassment are suppressed before they reach the courtrooms (which again are powerless in front of religion).Recommend

  • Nov 20, 2010 - 3:38AM

    In Islam, a person who has committed blasphemy can either be killed or crucified, or his opposite hands and feet can be cut off, or he can be exiled from that land. On the other hand, in other religions there is no other option except capital punishment. Islam at least has four options of punishment for an act of blasphemy.

    courtesy islamvoice.comRecommend

  • shafahat khan
    Nov 21, 2010 - 1:27AM

    such cases depend entirely on circumstantial evidence or the account of eye witnesses so these must be dealt with care. where the witnesses seem to be bias (as in this case), death penalty is not a suitable punishment rather its persecution.Recommend

  • Sara Perriard Noor
    Nov 21, 2010 - 6:01AM

    If she really stated anything against Holy Prophet (utmost peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and that is provable to the best, she must be hanged to death. Whosoever does the supporting bit and calls themselves a Muslim must reevaluate what they believe in.Recommend

  • Saad Rizwan
    Nov 24, 2010 - 4:35PM

    I have only one question to ask from all the Christians. Where was your Pope Benedict XVI when Pastor Terry Jones was organizing a “Burn Quran Day”? Where was Pope Benedict XVI when drawings of Prophet Mohammed (S.A.W) were being published and re-published around the world. It was clear from the start how the Muslim population of the world would respond against it, still no action or even words of sorrow were said by your dear Pope. Now a women has been sentenced (or possibly freed) in Pakistan for blasphemy and the Christians all around the world are speaking for her. May be she is wrongly punished, may be there is a flaw in the blasphemy law under sec 295-c, but why doesn’t anyone take action when Dr. Aafia Siddique is sentenced to 86 years in imprisonment? Why don’t you speak up when people from other religion are wrongly prosecuted/sentenced/punished or killed. Why don’t you speak for people of Kashmir and Palestine? You are just hypocrites. Same goes for the Pakistani government and the cowards running it. Think about it. Recommend

  • Anees
    Dec 4, 2010 - 11:03PM

    I completely agree Sara Perriard NoorRecommend

  • MAD
    Dec 6, 2010 - 11:19AM

    I still dont believe this is our way. as a muslim our conduct should be such that people are attracted towards us. right now we’re just scaring them away. our aim is to convert people to Islam. to make them see the light. that certainly wont happen by scaring them into submission and killing or hanging them.

    I must also raise the recent issue where members of rival muslim sects accuse each other of blasphemy. the law is horrendously misused. even if you believe in it if its misuse cannot be controlled than the law needs to go.Recommend

  • Seeking Truth
    Jan 8, 2011 - 1:41AM

    Dear Fellow Humans,

    Of all the comments made on this article, my Christian friend Remy has stated the most appropriate reasons. There is nothing wrong with the religious aspect of the law, what needs to be worked on is the way it is enforced.

    It is human nature to misuse power. Any institution needs an intricate system of checks and balances to make sure it’s powers aren’t misused. Not that you wipe out the institution completely.

    The corrupt state of the Pakistani government is not hidden from anybody. All that is essentially needed to cure this widely prevailant situation in the Pakistani society is a transparent communication between all factions of the society, but before one can put across their ideas or emotions, they need education, both on their own values and morals, and those of their counterparts. Unfortunately, more ofthen that always, such efforts get painted politically and all probable benefits go down the drain.

    If the minorities in Pakistan are living in fear of being at the wrong end of this law, their worries are justified, because that is what every member of that society is going through at this point – be it the mothers that send their bread-winners to work and their children to school in the mornings, or the innocent shoppers and traders buying and selling at a market. Nobody is safe. There is no security – neither at the national level, nor at the personal level. (How many of us hurt our friends and neighbours with our words and actions everyday?) There is no justice. No real freedom. No choice.

    Its only when a matter gets exaggerated beyond proportion that it attracts the attention of the media and people start pointing fingers. A few days of hot commenting, and then the matter is totally forgotten. What we need is a long, long-term, dialogue-based, demonstrated-by-own-actions action plan, involving immense consideration for fellow factions, be they ethical, religious or cultural – as per the Qur’an and the example of the Last Messenger of Islam, Beloved Muhammad peace be upon him.

    Peace upon all who accepted the message of peace.Recommend

  • Rémy
    Jan 9, 2011 - 11:51PM

    I would like to thank Seeking Truth for his very nice comment.
    Great work can be achieved for the whole of mankind if we forget about what has separated us in the past. Forgeting might not be the right word. Perhaps should I say “learn to do with it” or “forgive”. Otherwise the law of the talion will always be stronger.
    Also, I would like to answer Saad Rizwan. Dear friend, I fully understand how much it hurts you that some Christians act in the way you describe. And you are right to describe it that way. However, the Pope, Benedict XVI is the head of the Roman Catholic Church (1 billion faithful), it has absolutely nothing to do with Pastor Terry Jones (50 followers) they have connection whatsoever, the only thing they have in common is that they talk about Jesus. In very different ways. And I am ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that the Vatican, this is to say the whole official organisation of the Catholic Church headed by Benedict XVI has VIGOROUSLY CONDEMNED the Qu’ran burning plans. As it should be. I would have been very mad if my Church didn’t condemn this plan. With regards to the Muhammad caricatures, I think (but can’t remember exactly) the Pope called for respect, but Denmark has its own Church and it is not the duty of the Pope to deal with it. Be assure that the Pope doesn’t support any attack against the Muslims. Here are pieces of official Catholic texts that have the value of Catholic law.

    3. The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
    Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.

    You’ll find the whole text here.

    Love to all of you.
    God bless you all.Recommend

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