ISLAMABAD: In an unprecedented move, top Deobandi and Barelvi clerics joined hands to warn President Asif Ali Zardari against granting a discretionary pardon to a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, saying that the decision may trigger adverse reaction.
“I advise him (Zardari) not to take a hasty decision under foreign pressure,” Qari Hanif Jallundari, who represents the Deobandi school of thought, told The Express Tribune by phone from Lahore. “Such a decision will lead to untoward repercussions,” he added.
Hanif’s Wafaqul Madaris Al Arabia (WMA) is an umbrella organisation which leads more than 12,000 seminaries across Pakistan, mostly in Punjab, where many people accused of blasphemy have usually lost lives at the hands of religious zealots. An organisation which wields control over Barelvi seminaries has also joined the Deobandis in a bid to change the president’s decision which, they think, he has already taken. The two sects have a long history of sharply differing with each other on almost every issue.
Sahibzada Fazl Karim, a representative of Barelvi seminaries, said his organisation would stage demonstrations across the country if someone involved in a “crime like blasphemy is granted pardon”.
“It would be too much if the woman is set free. Death is the only punishment for a person who commits blasphemy,” Sahibzada Karim told reporters in Karachi on Sunday evening.
At the heart of the controversy is a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi who was sentenced to death by a sessions court in Sheikhupura district for blasphemy – a charge vehemently denied by the woman. The November 8 judgment revived a debate on whether such ‘controversial’ laws should continue or be reviewed.
Liberals, although a minority, believe such laws were enacted by former military ruler General Ziaul Haq in the 1980s to please the religious right, should be revoked to stop their misuse.
Both Qari Hanif and Sahibzada said they had a different perspective.
“Our point of view is…clear. Misuse is insufficient a justification for abolishing any law. Many laws are misused, even the country’s constitution, which is the mother of them all. Does this mean we will have to abolish all of these laws?” Jallundari said.
He advised Zardari to let the case reach him through proper channels – to the high court, then to the Supreme Court and then to the president. “Otherwise, it will be premature… and tantamount to putting (undue) pressure on the judiciary,” Qari said.
More pressure on Zardari for clemency
Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti on Monday ratcheted up the pressure on President Asif Ali Zardari to pardon Aasia Bibi, the Christian mother of five who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy.
The case began in June 2009 when Bibi was asked to fetch water while out working in the fields. Women labourers objected, saying that as a non-Muslim, she should not touch the water bowl.
Bibi was later arrested by police and prosecuted after women complained that she made derogatory remarks about the Holy Prophet (pbuh).
“According to my own investigation, it was a personal dispute and she did not commit blasphemy; she is innocent and her case is baseless,” stated Shahbaz Bhatti.
He stated that President Zardari had commissioned him to investigate the case. “I will hopefully submit my report to the president on Wednesday and recommend to him to grant pardon to Aasia Bibi.”
Also, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer on Sunday became the first senior government official to appeal to Zardari for clemency after visiting Bibi in prison.
“We have forwarded her petition to President Asif Ali Zardari and it is with him,” Taseer said. “She is poor and belongs to a minority community and should be pardoned.”
The presidency, however, informed AFP on Monday that it had received no such petition.
Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI last week also called for Bibi’s release. Human rights activists have expressed concern over the matter.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2010.